Jay Tavarez-Brown (C’21) discusses the history of Breslin Tower while giving a tour to students. Photo courtesy of Cecile Denton (C’21).
By Katherine LeClair
If you’ve spent more than 15 minutes on Sewanee’s central campus, you’ve heard the bells that ring from Breslin Tower every quarter of an hour, controlled by a clock drive originally installed in 1930. Today, the students who practice change bell ringing have named the clock drive “Edith.” Jay Tavarez-Brown (C’21), the work study student for change ringing in Breslin, remarked, “She’s very annoying, and I don’t like her, but we’re co-workers of sorts.”
Tavarez-Brown enrolled in change bell ringing in the Advent semester of their sophomore year, in part to avoid the labors of a typical physical education class, but also to explore an art form that is often overlooked. “I didn’t really know what I was signing up for,” they said, “and I don’t think most people do.”
What they did sign up for, though, was a high-risk exploration of physics, timing, and most importantly, control. These bells, which weigh up to 1,255 pounds, are each secured to a wheel which then attaches to a rope that falls to the floor below. To create just two strikes with the clapper inside the bell, Tavarez-Brown pulls the rope, catches it just so, pauses, and then releases.
“Learning how to handle a bell without hurting yourself is really taxing and can be pretty dangerous, so I didn’t enjoy it at first,” they said, “but once I got all the technique down it became fun and relaxing.”
Watching them practice, this ease becomes evident, and the labor seemed almost meditative.
Impressively, with just one year of experience, Tavarez-Brown has begun teaching other students the basics of ringing, under the guidance of the Rev. Dr. Ray Gotko, the University Carillonneur.
On the process of teaching, Tavarez-Brown remarked, “At the beginning of the semester it’s essentially, like, you give a tour to the students, you show them what the bells look like, how they work.” Then over time, they teach handling, then a hand stroke, then a backstroke. Eventually, these strokes are combined to execute the different permutations of ringing.
Teaching has given Tavarez-Brown a new way to approach their art form, constantly causing them to go back to the basics. They commented, “As a teacher you recognize people doing things that you did wrong when you were learning, and you’re like, ‘Oh jeez, what did Ray do to make me stop doing that?’ I have to get into his head while getting into [the student’s] head.”
Still, Tavarez-Brown acknowledged that there are many avenues for personal improvement. Last summer, at home in Seattle, Washington, they began ringing at Gerberding Hall on the University of Washington’s campus. “They challenged me every single day, and that made me the teacher I am now,” they said. “There’s always something new to learn.”
Because there are a sparse number of change ringing towers in the United States, Tavarez-Brown would either have to live in Washington or near the east coast in order to continue this art form after college. However, the minimal spaces for ringing encourages a close-knit community of artists, and it’s also an excuse to travel.
Earlier this semester, a group of ringers from England visited Sewanee, and during their stay they performed a quarter peel—45 minutes of non-stop ringing—which, according to Tavarez-Brown, “sounded amazing.” On the last day of their stay, Tavarez-Brown joined the group for another quarter peel, and felt privileged to ring alongside professionals.
All of this artistry and athleticism exists within the four walls of Breslin, and the rest of us, who admire this music from the ground, are often unaware of the effort put into it.
“It’s very private until it’s not, and we unmuffle the bells and play for everyone,” Tavarez-Brown said.