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Meet the 24-year-old who dropped out of law school to become Rochester's carillonneur

Meet the 24-year-old who dropped out of law school to become Rochester's carillonneur

I was having coffee with a friend a couple weeks back when, in the midst of conversation, she interjected to tell me about a recent experience. She had taken a tour atop Mayo Clinic's iconic Plummer Building where she was introduced to the man recently hired for the position of carillonneur.

I thought to myself: 'What on earth is a carillonneur?'

Before I could fully process the idea that it is someone's actual job to perform the bells I hear echo through downtown every day, my friend whipped out her cell phone and started showing me videos. There it was: a live human being performing a clunky-looking, piano-like instrument I did not even know existed.

I knew I had to see it myself firsthand. So a few emails and several flights up a dark spiral staircase later, I found myself on the 19th floor in the office of Mayo Clinic carillonneur Austin Ferguson.

The carillon originated nearly 500 years ago in the area of Europe that is now the Netherlands, Belgium and northern France. The best place to hear the instrument in Rochester is from Annenberg Plaza.

Ferguson, 24, has only been on the job since February. As an undergrad, he had performed the carillon on the campus of the University of Texas. But after graduation, Ferguson decided against pursuing music as a career and opted for law school instead. 

The only problem: he hated law school.

"I was miserable," he told me. "So the same day [Mayo] called and said ‘you’re hired,’ I withdrew from school.”

For some, the quick change in plans may seem rash — that is, until you realize how rare of an opportunity it is. The job is one of only four or five full-time carillonneur gigs in all of North America. And in Rochester, the position has been held by just three other people since 1928, the year the Plummer Building opened.

“It’s a little intimidating, I’m not going to lie," said Ferguson. “I remember when it was announced in the carillonneurs guild, the president sent out an email congratulating me. A couple people said ‘wow, you have inherited a remarkable soundscape and a remarkable job' ... And I’m still in disbelief now."

The Rochester Carillon is as heavy in history as it is in actual weight. With 56 bells, ranging in size from 19 pounds to four tons, the instrument is one of the largest of its kind in the country. 

But the carillon wasn't part of the original plan for the building. According to the archives, William J. Mayo had become fascinated with the instrument during a trip to Belgium. Upon his return, he worked with the architects to revise the plans to include the carillon. The original 23 bells were then cast in England, consecrated by the then-Archbishop of Canterbury and shipped to Rochester.

Traditionally reserved for churches and universities, Mayo Clinic is now the only medical center in the U.S. to have a carillon. 

What may surprise you about the carillon is that the bells do not actually swing. Instead, they are  fixed to supporting beams that are housed in a tower. Clappers, pulled by wires, strike the inside surface of the bells to create the ringing sound.

“It’s a joy to listen to and a joy to play," said Ferguson. "And I love seeing the looks on people’s faces when they step outside for the first time, and see this massive 8,000-pound bell right in front of them, it’s really cool. Everyone’s eyes just shoot right open.”

In addition to practicing and performing, Ferguson is also responsible for community outreach, social media and giving tours of his workspace. His office — filled with artifacts and secluded from the rest of the Mayo world — is only steps away from the top of the building, where he performs eight times per week in a climate -controlled booth. The remaining jingles, such as the chimes on the quarter hour, are pre-programmed on a computer.

Listen to the audio clip above to hear how loud the chimes sound from the carillonneurs's office. Ferguson said he's used to the interruptions, which sound off every 15 minutes.

Ferguson performs for a citywide audience every weekday at 4:45 p.m., plus three times specifically directed by the Mayo Brothers: Mondays at 7 p.m., and Wednesday and Fridays at noon. He also plays special concerts on holidays and other notable occasions.

As for what makes for a good carillonneur, Ferguson left us with this: “If somebody is walking by and you’re playing something and they say, ‘oh my grandmother used to sing me that when I was kid,' then walks away ... you have done your job."

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Cover photo: Med City Beat

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