Lisa Lonie dressed appropriately for her Sunday climb. In loose jeans and a sporty yellow nylon jacket, she guided eight visitors up a 150-step spiral staircase. At the top, she removed her jacket to reveal a sparkling green turtleneck sweater with cropped sleeves that left a few inches of her wrist bare before her hands. She was primed to play.
Lisa Lonie is Princeton’s designated carillonneur.
A carillon is a collection of chromatic bells, typically found at the top of a large tower. They connect via wire transmission system to a piano-like console made of wooden batons, played by fist and feet. Like the black and white keys of a piano, a carillon’s sharp batons rest above its natural ones. Below lie 20 foot pedals, attached to the same transmission wires as the top two layers of fist-controlled keys. These pedals, if pressed strong enough, can be heard up to a mile around the tower. “You can’t take back a note,” confessed Lisa, after she finished playing “Fisher’s Hornpipe,” an Irish folk song for St. Patrick’s Day.
Princeton originally intended to house the instrument within Holder Tower of Rockefeller College, a central fixture of the undergraduate campus. Unfortunately, the bell founders that cast the bells in England were not given proper sizing instructions. In 1927, when the bells arrived, “Princeton did what has yet to be done in higher education; they made a fast decision, relocating the instrument to the much larger Cleveland Tower,” which had fortunately been built ten years prior, Lisa explained. But because of its distance from the more populous undergraduate portion of the University, many students today are unaware of the carillon’s existence. “I’m the loudest voice you’ve never heard,” lamented Lisa.
Lisa started playing the carillon when she was 14 at her local church in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Prior to the carillon, she enjoyed piano privately, but performance anxiety made concerts difficult. She preferred the carillon because of the playing cabin’s position. “Someone is listening to me but they can’t be looking,” she said in an interview after her intimate 8-person Sunday concert (a routine she considers to be the one exception to her anxiety).
But the carillon challenges Lisa in other ways. “The performance is a piece of cake. It’s getting me up to the darn thing that’s the problem,” she revealed and proceeded to detail her severe acrophobia. Princeton’s carillon lacks an elevator like most others, and on the rare occasion she visits a carillon with an elevator, she believes her performance is better.
When she played for her small Sunday audience, she was comfortable speaking simultaneously. She described her favorite pop songs to transpose— “Bad Romance” is a favorite—and her hopes for the future of the instrument on campus and collaboration with other musicians. But the prospect of collaboration sometimes feels difficult for Lisa, as she is not a member of Princeton’s Music Department. Instead, her position falls within the University Chapel. She hopes in the future to breech the gap.
Prior to the end of the Victorian Era, the carillon was played strictly by men. “You can’t really play in a skirt, so women back then had to wear pants if they were devoted. It was a physical taboo,” Lisa explained. Commanding the instrument proves no easy task, with fists and feet in constant motion. But as a veteran, she enjoys her weekly routine and quips that she doesn’t need to pay for a gym membership.
Lisa is Princeton’s first woman carillonneur. “I don’t like to say I got this job because I’m a woman. I got this job because I played well,” she commented. “Unless you’re up there in the cabin, you don’t know if it’s a guy or a girl who’s playing, so why does that matter?” Lisa says one’s physique doesn’t have to affect the way they play. She’s seen tiny women pound keys and large men pat them. Currently, women make up about 43% of all North American carillonneurs, while in Europe it is still very much a male-dominated profession.
The international carillon community is rich in spirit and memory. In Europe, carillons that have existed for over 500 years still commence market day festivities, and carillon academies train new generations of players. A number of U.S. universities offer masters in carillon playing. Graduates of these institutions travel the world to give concerts on each other’s consoles and share their new compositions.
Princeton’s carillon is the fifth largest in North America, boasting a total of 67 bells. It has its own endowment for repairs, concert programming, and lessons. Only clappers and wires currently need attention. “Once the bells are tuned in the foundry,” Lisa explained, “they don’t go out of tune for hundreds and hundreds of years.” Recently, she created a concert series called “carillon karaoke,” where powerful speakers she purchased back her bells in full orchestral compositions.
As for lessons, Lisa currently teaches one undergraduate and ten graduate students, who have the have the opportunity to perform at an annual concert in April. Since students have limited time to train on the real carillon, they instead utilize a practice console in the basement of the graduate college, developed specifically to match the one in the tower with 67 bells. “There’re a lot of students who come to me in the spring of their final year, and tell me, ‘I’ve been dying to play the carillon for the longest time! Will you teach me?’” She will not. The carillon, to Lisa, is not an instrument one can learn in such a short period, regardless of musical experience.
While Lisa spends most of her time at Princeton, she also plays two other carillons as well, one at St. Thomas Church in Whitemarsh, a suburb of Philadelphia, and Church of the Holy Trinity, which lies in the heart of Whitemarsh. Sometimes, when she isn’t available to give a live performance, she must remotely control the carillon’s automatic system through MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface). Immediately after she programs a song, the software electronically triggers desired clappers and the force at which they hit the bell. For the 2018 Super Bowl, Lisa programmed the Eagles theme during the week up to and after their victory.
Lisa also plays the carillon for special circumstances outside of routine and concert. If it’s someone’s birthday, she will perform a song of their choice. If there is a mass shooting, she will toll the Bourdon bell, the lowest and largest, once for each victim. For the Las Vegas massacre, she decided to also announce the names of the deceased on her speaker system. “I always hope I never have to play one again,” she commented. In her 3rd month as Princeton’s carillonneur, she rung the Bourdon bell twenty times for the victims at Sandy Hook. She never imagined she would have to strike it as many times as she has to date.
Playing the carillon is not Lisa’s full-time job. She works as an executive assistant at Salus University, a small health professions college in Philadelphia. “Don’t get me wrong, I love my job there, too,” Lisa informed. Salus has been her home for over 25 years, and surprisingly, not many employees know about her “side gig.” After work, she returns home to her husband and children, none of whom play the carillon. “It’s a big baseball house,” she explained. But they are always sure to support her at her concerts in the summer and school year.