Carrying on nearly 100 years of history — meet UNI’s Guild of Carillonneurs

Carrying on nearly 100 years of history — meet UNI’s Guild of Carillonneurs

Anna Flanders /

UNIs practice carillon

Anticipation is mounting for the May 1 return of the carillon bells to the University of Northern Iowa campus, and no group feels that more deeply than the Guild of Carillonneurs. This seven-member ensemble is the student group responsible for playing the carillon - the instrument at the top of the Campanile.

“I am anxiously awaiting the return of the bells,” said Emily Clouser, president of the Guild of Carillonneurs. “We all are as a guild.”

Started in 2015, the Guild is an audition-only group, made up primarily of music majors at UNI, although you do not have to be a music major to join. When the bells are on campus, the group plays the carillon for all to enjoy, including weekly lunchtime concerts and an annual Campaniling concert during Homecoming week.

“It’s cool to be a part of the history and know that you're carrying on a tradition that dates clear back to 1926 [when the Campanile was built],” said Clouser. “Especially with the big 100-year anniversary coming up, that's something to be proud of.”

Clouser, a junior choral music education major from Waukee, Iowa, first learned about the Guild of Carillonneurs as a freshman when she received an email about auditioning. She had to do some Googling to figure out what exactly a carillonneur was.

“Before coming to UNI, I had never played on a carillon,” said Clouser. “I had no idea what a carillon was, and, to be quite honest, I was one of those people who thought it just went off automatically.”

For her audition, Clouser recalls meeting former Guild president Brenda Sevcik at the base of the Campanile late at night. The two climbed up the Campanile together, and Clouser played her audition for Sevcik. The experience was capped off with Sevcik telling Clouser some of the history of the tower.

“I knew that's what I wanted to do,” Clouser said. “I knew even if I didn't get into the guild, then I would be auditioning the next semester because I just loved being in the building and hearing all the history and seeing all the brick and the unique aging of the inside of the tower. And, of course, the clock mechanism is super cool to see with all the gears and all the technology there.” 

Clouser has an even deeper connection to the Campanile than most, as she’s a fourth-generation University of Northern Iowa student. Her grandma even experienced a Campanile renovation back in 1968 as a junior, just as Clouser is experiencing a Campanile renovation in 2023 as a junior.

Before she passed away, Clouser’s grandmother was able to come to UNI campus and listen to her granddaughter play the carillon. It’s a memory Clouser will always cherish.

“Getting to have her sit there at the bottom while I was playing up top and just seeing all the pride on her face when I came down will forever be one of my favorite memories,” said Clouser. “It was just huge for me to get to have someone who cares so much about UNI and is very proud of the education she got here at UNI to see me up there playing from inside the Campanile.”

Since joining the guild, Clouser’s love for the Campanile and the carillon has only grown. In fact, in February, while in Cincinnati for an academic conference, Clouser went out of her way to organize her own visit to The Verdin Company to see the carillon while it’s being renovated. Having met company president Tim Verdin during the Homecoming festivities in the fall, Clouser decided to send a text directly to Verdin to ask if it would be possible for her to visit the factory. She was surprised when she got a text just 30 minutes later from an exuberant Verdin who said he’d be more than happy to show her around the factory.

Clouser enjoyed getting an up-close look at the belfry infrastructure without it being hooked up to wires. She even got to use a hammer to play on the bells.

“Knowing our bells are in such good hands when they're in Cincinnati and knowing how they see the value just as much as what we do is huge,” said Clouser.

The bells may currently be more than 500 miles from UNI campus, but Clouser and the guild have been able to keep their carillon-playing skills sharp thanks to a practice carillon, which is housed in Jebe Hall in the Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center. Like the instrument in the Campanile, it bears some similarities to a piano, with wooden levers in place of keys. In the traditional carillon atop the Campanile, the levers connect to wires that pull the clappers of the bells. In the practice version, the levers connect to hammers that strike a glockenspiel. 

The guild will have its next concert on April 30 at 5 p.m., which will feature some traditional carillon pieces and take on a more formal tone. The guild members will also play their primary instruments including the horn, organ, and viola alongside the carillon.

Although it’s nice to have the practice carillon, it’s certainly no replacement for the Campanile’s instrument.

“I'm just looking forward to having the carillon back on campus, so when it's a sunny day, I can walk over there with a backpack full of music and climb and give the campus and community a concert,” said Clouser. 

The community certainly misses the carillon as well. Clouser heard this recently at another practice carillon concert in Jebe Hall when multiple community members showed up, just to hear the sound of the instrument they’ve grown fond of once again.

Luckily, these community members won’t have to wait much longer to hear the full sound of the bells playing from the Campanile. May 1 can’t come soon enough.