UT Guild of Carillonneurs plays music from Tower, contributes to campus community

Dina Barrish

A lone student with sheet music enters the UT Tower. He takes the elevator to the 27th floor, climbs five flights of stairs, walks past the clock room, switches on the lights and switches off the computer that automatically plays the Tower’s bells. 

“It’s like this huge maze inside (the Tower),” said UTeach graduate student Jose Sabido. “I typically think about who’s down there, sitting (on the South Mall) with blankets or studying. I’m kind of wondering, ‘Do they notice me?’”

As an officer for the UT Guild of Carillonneurs, Sabido is one of six students allowed at the top of the 307-foot tower. Along with his fellow Guild members, he plays songs on the carillon and creates the bell music heard across campus.  

“Music is something that you should share,” Sabido said. “I know that might be a little bit scary to some people, that everyone can hear your mistakes whenever you’re playing, but I think that’s quite nice. Being okay with failure is something that I’ve learned from playing the bells.” 

Students have been playing the bells since construction of the Tower was completed in 1937. By 2010, the Guild was founded as an official UT student organization. 

“(The Guild) is a megaphone of the university,” said Justin Zhang, a Guild officer and finance and business honors sophomore. “Being able to have a common language between all these different students and even faculty and staff, maintaining that school spirit and tradition that’s been happening for over 100 years now, it’s just really valuable and the biggest reason why I do this.” 

Playing the carillon requires the use of both hands and feet. Similar to the organ, there are foot pedals to play distinct keys. All three Guild officers— Sabido, Justin Zhang and music composition junior Molei Zhang — grew up playing piano, which gave them a leg up at Guild auditions. 

“Music has been a part of my life since I was very little,” Justin Zhang said. “Coming into college, I wanted to learn something out-of-the-box, something that I couldn’t do other than when I was at UT. The bells are something that you can’t really find anywhere else.”

Molei Zhang said the group holds concerts every Monday. After rehearsing in the Tower practice room for 15 to 20 minutes, they head up to the bells to perform their individual pieces. 

“We call that ‘Tower time,’” Molei Zhang said. “It’s not the traditional concert stage, where the audience is sitting silently and they obey these etiquette rules that were formulated in the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s a public art form … it fulfills a social function. I’ve always been a fan of that informality.” 

The bells automatically chime every 15 minutes, and “The Eyes of Texas” plays every day at 9 p.m. While Sabido said the Guild cannot change the automation, they have decided to stop manually playing the song after student concerns about its racist origins

The Guild officers said they have their personal favorite songs to play, but they love taking student requests via Instagram, email and even the old-timey, coil-corded phone next to the window in the bell room. 

“One of the songs that someone requested on the fly was ‘All My Ex’s Live in Texas,”’ Sabido said. “I played it and then I messaged them back real quick, and they’re like, ‘Yes, thank you so much, you made my day.’ That’s really nice to hear from people who are listening.” 

Because playing the bells takes practice and skill, Justin Zhang said he appreciates when the UT community recognizes the efforts of the Guild. 

“You might be having a hard day of stress, maybe you had an exam, maybe you just got out of an interview or you’re headed to a big event,” Justin Zhang said. “Just hearing something on the Tower that is recognizable makes being here a little more enjoyable.”