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Culture Couch is WYSO's occasional series exploring the arts and culture scene in our community. It’s stories about creativity – told through creative audio storytelling.

Meet the new carillonneur at Carillon Historical Park

Alan Bowman stands behind the wires that ring bells at Carillon Park.
J. Reynolds
Alan Bowman stands behind the wires that ring bells at Carillon Park.

A carillon is one of the few musical instruments you have to go inside of to play, and the door of the Deeds Carillon is a work of art.

It’s made of cast bronze letters that spell out Henry Longfellow’s “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

The location is unique, too.

“It’s wonderful,” Larry Weinstein said. “It's a perfect setting here in the park. You can sit out on the grass on a day like this and just listen, have a picnic. It's just a beautiful setting and beautiful instrument.”

The instrument is 151 feet tall. It has four legs that shoot straight up from the ground and curve into arches at the very top. Suspended under those arches are about 30 feet of gigantic bells.

There’s also a big box about the size of a studio apartment under the bells. That’s where the carillon is played.

The carillon's largest bell weighs about 7,000 lbs.

To get up there, you have to take a tiny elevator made from metal grate. It can barely fit two people, and looks like something from a horror movie.

On his path to becoming the new carillonneur, Dayton-native Bowman spent decades as a church musician in Florida.

“I was back here visiting my father,” Bowman said. “I contacted Larry because I always wanted to learn how to play, and he said, if you're serious about learning to play, go to Europe"like he did and study at one of the schools over there. He said, 'you might just have a job when you come back with your diploma. So, that's what has happened.”

Up the elevator at the carillon, there's a stunning view out of each window: the downtown skyline to the north and the Great Miami River rolling south.

Those windows and a tiny hatch in the roof also serve as sound monitors.

“Ambient bell noise from outside is helpful,” Bowman said. “But I'll also open this hatch right above me. Then you can hear what the bells are sounding more like to the people outside.”

Like most carillons, this one doesn’t use a piano keyboard. Instead of small keys, there are wooden handles, which they call batons. When the elevator brings Larry Weinstein up, he explained how it works.

“Imagine a row of broomstick handles arranged like the white and black keys of a piano," he said. "And instead of pushing down a key with your finger, you're pressing it down with a fist.”

Alan Bowman plays the Deeds Carillon.
J. Reynolds
Alan Bowman plays the Deeds Carillon.

When a carillonneur presses down on a baton, it pulls a thick metal wire, and that sets off a series of levers and pulleys which move the clappers inside the bells. The bells don’t move. It’s the clappers inside that strike the stationary bells.

There are also pedals on the floor for playing the biggest bells, and Bowman always changes into a pair of tennis shoes before he plays.

“The biggest bell is about three and a half tons. So you need to play the bigger ones with your feet, and not just your hands,” he said. “That's where your feet come in handy.”

When Bowman played for WYSO, the wires and pedals and keys made an extraordinary amount of noise, with the machinery of the instrument almost as loud as the bells from inside the carillon.

“It's a completely different experience up here,” Bowman said.

Down on the ground, there was an audience. Burt Fisher and his wife were vacationing from Minnesota and planned their day around Carillon.

“The carillon is what brought us here and I think the music is wonderful,” Fisher said. “This is really an architectural and artistic artifact. It’s an amazing thing.”

Most of the people on the lawn were unaware that there was a person in the carillon playing it. They shook their heads and pointed up at the big box Bowman plays in — a box that looks quite small from the lawn.

And, for the first time in decades Larry Weinstein can listen to the carillon outside instead of playing it inside.

“There are about 200 carillons in the country,” he said. “A good portion of them are at schools and universities. Most of them are in churches. This one is something of a rarity as it’s in a park, a public park. So, it’s a great place to hear the instrument, and you can play it without disturbing the neighbors, which is really important.”

Larry Weinstein stands in front of the Carillon he played for 35 years.
J. Reynolds
Larry Weinstein stands in front of the Carillon he played for 35 years.

For a full list of upcoming Deeds Carillon concerts, visit daytonhistory.org