Of Ropes and Rhythms: Understanding Sewanee’s Bells

Daphne Nwobike

Staff Writer

Do you remember the first time you heard the resounding chime of Sewanee’s bells? Maybe you felt elated and intrigued by the uniqueness of residing on a campus with its very own bells. Perhaps you felt disturbed by the unexpected tolling. Better still, maybe you heard it, shrugged, and moved on with your day. Regardless of your initial reaction and current sentiments about Sewanee’s bells, there is no denying that they are a special and indelible aspect of this campus, its aesthetic, and its long-winded history.

Illustration courtesy of Riley Verner (C’26)

Sewanee is one of only six universities in the nation with such remarkable bells, putting us in league with schools such as the University of Chicago and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Shapard Tower and Breslin Tower are the home to Sewanee’s bells. Eight bells in Breslin Tower are controlled by Sewanee’s change ringers, and four separate bells ring in tandem with the clock by-the-hour and quarter-hour (no, change ringers aren’t climbing the steps at 3 am to ring the bells!) Outstandingly, 56 bells are ensconced within Shapard Tower.

The bells in Shapard have been around since the 1950s, whereas Breslin’s bells have been at Sewanee since 2004. Rev. Dr. Ray Gotko, the University Carillonneur, oversees these bells and ensures they function properly. He has inhabited this role for over seven years and knows the bells like the back of his hand. To access the bells, whether at Shapard Tower or Breslin Tower, you must carefully tread multiple flights of stairs, some straight and steep, others windy and curvy. 

To ring the Breslin bells, Dr. Gotko and his fellow carillonneurs methodically pull on ropes hanging from holes in the ceiling. These ropes are connected to the bells and require extensive arm and core strength and coordination to tug them down effectively. The change ringers pull on the rope, catch it at a certain angle, and release it again, all with the help of physics. Dr. Gotko and the experienced bell ringers make this task look effortless, but untrained individuals risk being lifted in the air by the massive bell. Considering how demanding this task is, why would anyone choose to ring the bells? Dr. Gotko shares his reasons, stating that “it’s a contemplative activity.” During change ringing, “you can’t do anything else but this, and I really need time like that. Not only that, it’s a physical activity I enjoy, and there are wonderful people to be with. So it ticks all three boxes!”

The ringing of the Breslin bells isn’t so straightforward. Different patterns and combinations are employed to create distinctive sounds, some more complicated than others. According to Dr. Gotko, “a full peal would be all the possible changes on the number of bells. When this tower was dedicated, a group came from England and rang a peal on seven bells. They rang as many changes as you could make on seven bells, and it took them two hours and 50 minutes.” This shows the undoubtedly intricate nature of change ringing, especially with eight bells. Ringing the bells at Shapard Tower is much less daunting, but it requires skill. These bells create sound based on a piano-like machine that has been in the tower since its creation. Each key has a wire that connects it to a bell. When a key is pressed, a bell rings. The heavier the bell, the heavier the key. “It is a solitary experience compared to change ringing the other bells,” says Dr. Gotko. But the process still produces evocative music.  

Though the practice of bell ringing may seem antiquated, many technological advances have helped increase its efficiency. For instance, at Breslin Tower, there is a program called the Abel Ringing Simulator, which simulates different combinations and rhythms that can be created and allows the ringers to practice patterns, all through sensors connected to the bells. At Shapard Tower, Dr. Gotko has access to a camera that shows him the happenings in All Saints’ Chapel, letting him know when to begin ringing the bells with the keys. 

Bell ringing classes were first offered in 2016. This course teaches students the skills necessary for chiming the bells. Still, the process does take some time to get used to. Olivia Maschinot, a current change ringer, was quite intimidated when she took her first class. She says, “I remember I was really scared because the two people that went before me…let’s just say it got a little out of hand. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m gonna die!’ That was my first thought. But quickly I realized that was not the case.” Emma Spicer, a senior change ringer, reinforces the joys of change ringing, stating, “when you finally figure out how to hang the bell up there and get it set, it becomes one of the ‘funnest’ feelings in the world.” Taking the Change-Bell Ringing course does not guarantee that a student will become a proficient bell changer. Dr. Gotko says that “some people catch on and some people do not, no matter how long they do it.” Regardless, taking a change ringing class is a great way to earn a physical education credit or, even better, immerse yourself in one of Sewanee’s many riveting traditions.  

The change ringers keep coming back because it’s fun and challenging. Meridith Frazee, a junior change ringer, says, “I’ve been ringing with most of these people now for two years, and that’s a big part of it. It can be really challenging, but it also means you can bond with the people that you ring with; you can joke and laugh about it.” The significance of these bells on Sewanee’s campus cannot be underestimated. Knowing that the bells ring every Sunday, mark special occasions (such as the announcement of the vice-chancellor), and make noise during convocations, weddings, funerals, and football victories shows that they are more precious and inextricably connected to the very essence of Sewanee’s identity, perhaps even more than we can begin to fathom.