Two seniors, best friends, learned to play the carillon bells together this semester, an idea born when they met as incoming first-year students and made possible with a grant from the Clemson University Honors College.
It might not be surprising if they were music majors or had a light senior schedule. But Morgan Usher and Bailey Gibson are STEM majors — one in the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences and the other in the College of Science.
They learned to play the bells while also juggling departmental Honors theses, medical school applications and graduate fellowship deadlines. Neither even knew how to play the piano prior to this summer.
They knew their senior year would be busy. So they committed to doing something special together to commemorate their Clemson experience and stay involved in each other’s lives.
The Carillon Bells
“It’s an instrument that I’ll never really have the chance to play again,” Gibson said. “And I’m all about learning new things and trying new experiences.”
They enrolled in MUSC 3250 – CU Carillonneurs. They met privately each week with Linda Dzuris, chair of the Department of Performing Arts and the university’s carillonneur.
She taught them to play the carillon bells, a 48-bell instrument located in Tillman Hall. The class is limited to about 10 students every semester since there is limited space in the playing cabin beneath the bell chamber.
“Our biggest bell, fondly nicknamed “BIG C,” was given by the class of ’43,” Dzuris said. “They wanted the carillon to be an important part of the Clemson experience, hoping that no matter where in the world students end up, hearing a bell ring would remind them of their time on this campus and their connection as part of the Clemon family.”
Clemson is the only university or college in South Carolina where students can learn to play the carillon. The Department of Performing Arts offers private and group lessons to all students no matter their course of study.
Usher, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, said that learning to play the bells helps balance her academic focus on science and math.
“I think the culture of Clemson has instilled in me the importance of being well balanced,” she said. “Taking the time to do fun things, and enjoying my time here is so important. And it helps me enjoy the academics more.”
Gibson and Usher met when paired as roommates during the Honors College EUREKA! undergraduate research program. They first heard about the class while on a tour that summer and joked about taking the class together.
The pair talked about playing the bells on and off until spring of junior year. That’s when they realized that Gibson only had one more semester. She will graduate early in December.
“We were like, oh this fall is literally the last chance we have to take this, and so we decided that we might as well go for it,” Usher said.
Educational Enrichment Grants
After enrolling in the class, they hit a roadblock. They needed to know how to play the piano. They could learn during the summer but would need piano lessons and keyboards to practice.
To cover the cost, they applied for an Honors College educational enrichment mini grant. They were one of the 28 student-led summer projects to be funded.
The idea for the mini grants was born in 2020 after COVID-19 made travel impossible. Prior to Covid, the Honors College awarded travel grants to students for out-of-the-classroom summer experiences.
“Honors mini grants give our students opportunities to learn, to stretch themselves, to connect with each other, and to help their communities — all of which are vital to an Honors education,” said William Lasser, executive director of the Honors College.
Gibson and Usher took piano lessons virtually from the Easley Fine Arts Center. Learning to play the piano was the first of many obstacles to overcome in order to play the instrument.
The size of the instrument proves challenging. Usher says it’s like a giant piano, except that instead of using a finger to play each key, you use your fists.
“The timing is kind of tough because sometimes you have to move your arm all the way down here and there are also foot pedals,” she said. “So you’re stretching your whole body to hit the last one.”
Gibson said the kinesthetic experience offers a contrast to most of her academic work.
“It’s been really fun, I think because it’s not something we’re naturally good at, at least I’m not,” she said. “Going up there and learning by trial by error has been a really fun experience.”
Students can choose their own music. Some popular favorites include the Harry Potter theme song, Phantom of the Opera and Disney soundtracks.
Sometimes people passing by will hear a mashup of songs from gospel music, to rock to rap. Or Christmas music in September.
Being Part of Tradition
During Homecoming week, students working on floats on Bowman Field heard Jingle Bells. The performer was Gibson’s mom, who was giddy when her daughter invited her to tour the tower.
“My mom grew up in Clemson. She had family here since the school was founded, and she had never been in the bell tower. And I was able to go up there and take her with me.”
Her mom didn’t stop talking about the experience all week.
“I can’t imagine how many people love Clemson like my family loves Clemson and have never gotten to be up here. So it was just really cool that we got to experience it together.”
Both students have several family members who attended Clemson, though neither of them originally planned to attend. For both, a visit to campus and the opportunity to attend the Honors College led them to ultimately choose Clemson. They also considered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University, the University of South Carolina Honors and Furman.
“We do have such a personal tie to Clemson,” Usher said, “that doing something that is so iconically Clemson was really easy to take on.”
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