Ames, Iowa — Every weekday when classes are in session, Tin-Shi Tam climbs 79 steep, narrow stairs to a wood-paneled playing cabin just below the 50 bells of Iowa State University’s carillon. She turns off the chimes that mark the quarter hours, checks to make sure her Internet connection is live, and scrambles up a ladder to open the ceiling hatch so she’ll be able to hear the bells. Then she slides onto the bench in front of the clavier—which is arranged like a piano’s keyboard, only with levers instead of keys—and begins to play.
Ms. Tam, an associate professor of music, might offer the campus something classical, or she might go with a pop song (her rendition of the Lady Gaga hit “Bad Romance” attracted hundreds of thousands of viewers on YouTube). On Fridays she takes requests. Today, for instance, someone wanted to hear the Karen Carpenter song “Top of the World,” but the request came in late and Ms. Tam didn’t have enough time to find the music and transcribe it for the carillon, so instead she played “I Only Want to Be With You.”
She also played “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” because it was a dismal day; a lovely Chinese percussion piece; a song from a Korean drama; and “Louie, Louie,” in honor of Kenn McCloud, the KCCQ-FM disk jockey who in 1991 locked himself in the campanile for five days to raise money for the 1899 carillon, which was in need of both a renovation and a carilloneur to replace Ms. Tam’s predecessor, who had retired. His effort paid off handsomely, attracting so much attention that the instrument and the tower got a complete overhaul and an endowment. Another endowment supports Ms. Tam’s position as the carilloneur and Cownie Professor of Music.
Ms. Tam rounded out her lunchtime performance with the university’s fight song and then its alma mater—appropriately, “The Bells of Iowa State.” The fight song is a full-on offense of sound, but “Bells” is an old-school campus classic that Ms. Tam ends with a low note from the instrument’s biggest bell that hangs in the air as she plays a final trill on smaller bells.
Ms. Tam, who began playing the carillon while she was a graduate student at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, has been Iowa State’s carilloneur since 1994. In addition to daily concerts, she teaches students how to play the carillon and also teaches an online music-appreciation course. When she’s not playing, or popularizing, the carillon, she plays the organ at a Methodist church in Des Moines. “I tend to play instruments that make a lot of noise, that I can’t carry around with me,” she says.
But the anonymity that used to be assured carilloneurs in their lonely playing cabins is no more—a Web cam mounted by the hatch leading to the bells streams Ms. Tam’s daily concerts live over the Internet through the carillon’s home page. So an instrument that could already be heard almost all over the campus can now be heard around the world.