Carillon player makes beautiful music at Baylor University

WACO, Texas (AP) — Lynnette Geary initially teaches students to play the carillon on a modified electric keyboard.

But there is no way to replicate the real thing, manipulating wooden levers with both hands and feet to bring 22 tons of bronze bells at the top of Pat Neff Hall into a melody descending over Baylor University.

The Waco Tribune-Herald reports Geary is an unsung hero who brings an ethereal beauty to Baylor, music school dean Gary Mortenson said.

“Her carillon playing floats above our central campus during times of celebration, significant times in our academic-Christian calendar and during times of tragedy when reflection is important,” Mortenson said. “Lynnette’s dedication to upholding high standards of performance on this very specialized musical instrument, at the very pinnacle of our most iconic building, helps all of us down on the ground appreciate something greater and more meaningful than the daily tasks we are going to and from in our buildings.

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“We are richer, as a campus community, for her contribution to our daily lives even though we do not see her as she climbs six stories to the carillon room and takes the bench to push the levers to ring the bells, large and small, that create such heavenly sounds.”

Geary’s climb up the narrow staircase takes her to a small room with the keys to the 48 cast bronze bells overhead. She turns off an air conditioner in the window struggling against triple-digit summer temperatures and closes the passage that leads to the bells.

Leaving the passage open would be deafening, but leaving the air conditioner on would drown out her music, she said.

The she gets to work, using the side of her fist to press a series of baton-like keys while her feet navigate a pedal keyboard.

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Geary, the assistant to the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, was named the university’s official carillonneur in 2006 after a decade of working under Herbert Colvin, then a music professor and the official carillonneur since 1988.

The Arkansas native first encountered a carillon in the 1970s and earned her first Baylor degree in 1975, a bachelor’s in music education. After stints working in the history department and earning a master’s in music history and literature, she landed in the dean’s office by 1999 and had the unofficial title of assistant carillonneur.

“I just thought that was the coolest thing in the world,” Geary said of her first impression of the instrument.

She has never lost that awe.

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She laughed when asked how much longer she will climb the stairs to the top of Pat Neff Hall to continue playing. Everyone keeps asking her that, she said.

“I’ve known people who have done this into their 80s, which is probably not a good idea,” Geary said. “I’m sure I will have a sign when it’s time.”

Outside of her full-time duties, she also teaches a student or two each semester how to play the carillon.

“Some of your practice is very public, and we’ve got to respect the campus,” she said. “We use it just to learn the notes and hack out the technical part of the music, but you have to practice in the tower so that you learn the musical nuances and how the bells are going to respond because you have to play in balance.”

Practices are typically limited to late afternoons or weekends to prevent any distraction for students in class or events held on campus.

Baylor’s carillon was a gift from the Drayton McLane family and the McLane Co., of Temple, according to the university’s website. The instrument was dedicated in 1988, and the McLane Carillon is one of about 115 carillons in North American with a range of four octaves or more, according to the university.

Despite the rarity of the instrument, carillonneurs are not a dying breed, Geary said.

She earned a certification from The Guild of Carillonneurs in North America in 1996 and attends annual conferences with her peers.

“People who do this are extremely enthusiastic about it,” Geary said. “What I have been so pleased about is we have a large percentage of our membership are college-age and in their 30s, and they have really helped the guild in a lot of ways. They are great advocates for the profession.”

For her part, and with decades on the instrument already, every climb up the tower is an opportunity to continue to hone her skills, she said.

“You’re in a position that you can serve the community, and that’s a tremendous privilege that you’ve got to pay attention to,” she said.


Information from: Waco Tribune-Herald,