Meet Dr. Elizabeth Berghout – the woman who’s been playing KU’s bells for 17 years
“I’ve been the University Carillonnist for 17 years – 17 and a half. Originally I came for school, I got a master’s degree in church music and a doctorate degree in organ performance. I had my sights set on the organ and that was going to be my career and in 1996 there was a re-dedication recital. So I came to that recital and just loved sound of the bells, took a tour, came up and watched Bert Gerken playing the carillon and decided that I had to learn how to play it.
The technique is completely different. On the organ a lot of times we want to hold one key down until we get the other played. But on the carillon we don’t hold keys down at all, we just strike it and let it go and that’s how we get the best sound.
I knew that everyone around could hear what I was doing and the instrument upstairs just feels so different than the practice instrument. My first time up there was essentially a public performance – yes I was nervous – but I found that once I started playing I forgot that everyone was hearing what I was doing. Then I just got into the music and really enjoyed myself.
The tower itself started to be constructed in 1950. After world war two the KU community wanted to find some way they could honor everyone who had participated in the war, and especially to remember those who had died. The decided on a bell tower and to house a carillon.
A carillon is the musical instrument that is made up of the bells. We have 53 bells – our lowest bell sounds an f-sharp tone and it weighs over 13,000 pounds. The hammer that strikes that bell weighs about 300 pounds. Our smallest bell is about 10 pounds – about the size of a salad plate.
Its 40 steps up to the mid-level and then 30 more steps up to the bell deck. Originally there was a shower on this level because there wasn’t air-conditioning, and you can get pretty sweaty playing the carillon.
My instructor, he was the second carillonneur here at KU, Roy Hamlin Johnson taught at KU, there’s lots of KU connections for carillon music. My husband has written some pieces for the carillon and I love to play those. Back in the 50’s when the instrument was installed, composers and other instrumentalists, students, professors, wrote music for the carillon that was highly influential throughout the carillon world.
It’s really exciting to be at a place that is the center of American carillon music,” said Berghout.