In a tower 300 feet above Rochester, a new carillonneur plays songs for all to hear

Austin Ferguson
Ferguson stands amid his instrument at the top of the Plummer building tower.
Jerry Olson for MPR News

Every day at the start of Rochester's evening rush hour, a massive set of bells comes to life atop one of the city's tallest buildings.

At the keyboard is Austin Ferguson, the Mayo Clinic's newest — and, at 24 years old, youngest — carillonneur, the official term for someone who makes music flow from a bell tower.

As a high school student in Texas, Ferguson was already accomplished on the piano and organ. But it was at a Baylor University organ camp where a mentor introduced him to the carillon.

Getting to work is no easy task for Ferguson
Getting to work is no easy task for Austin Ferguson, the carillonneur for Mayo Clinic. He can take an elevator only to the 15th floor, then he climbs two levels of stairs and then three flights of spiral steps to the bell tower.
Jerry Olson for MPR News

"I remember I was really scared to play something that the whole university could hear," Ferguson said.

Instead of gentle coaxing, the mentor gave him an earful.

"'Get over yourself and play the stupid piece,'" Ferguson recalls being told. "So I got over myself and played the stupid piece."

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That "stupid" piece was by the Baroque composer George Frideric Handel.

From that point forward Ferguson was hooked, playing part-time while he earned his college music degree, and later in law school.

The Plummer Building, downtown Rochester, Minn.
The Plummer Building has become an iconic symbol of the Mayo Clinic, and it houses the 56-bell carillon in its tower.
Jerry Olson for MPR News

Now he's in charge of the Mayo Clinic's carillon in the Plummer building, one of Rochester's tallest and most recognizable structures. Perched 300 feet up, he's shielded from the elements in the tiny glass-encased room.

The carillon itself is a complicated set up. To play, Ferguson's hands strike wooden dowels called batons that are arranged like an oversized piano keyboard. Those batons are attached to wires which are attached to clappers that ring the array of bells high above him. There are also foot pedals for low notes.

The carillon was born near the end of the Reformation, but Ferguson was born near the end of the 20th century.

So, he's created a Twitter account for the bells to raise the carillon's profile. He takes daily requests from the public — everything from from Bach to Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water," to jazz, show tunes and pop.

Ferguson applied for the Mayo job even though he felt too young and inexperienced. But when he was offered the gig, he accepted and dropped out of law school the same day.

Austin Ferguson
In the history of Mayo Clinic, only four people have held the position of carillonneur.
Jerry Olson for MPR News

This might not seem like a great career move. But full-time carilloneur jobs are extremely rare, and turnover is low.

"I think there might be four or five of them that are actually full-time," said Tim Sleep, president of the Guild of Carillonneurs of North America.

Jobs are scarce because the institutions that own them — churches and sometimes universities — can't afford a full-time salary, he said. Some instruments are automated.

Ferguson is only the fourth person to hold the Mayo job since it was created in the late 1920s.

His enthusiasm makes him perfect for raising the profile of both the instrument and the person playing it, Sleep said

The Mayo Clinic has a large carillon consisting of 56 bells.
The Mayo Clinic has a large carillon consisting of 56 bells and offering a range of 4.5 octaves. The largest bell weighs in at four tons while the smallest bell weighs 17 pounds.
Jerry Olson for MPR News

"Carillons as a whole are faceless instruments. You're out, you're walking, you're hearing the bells played," he said. "But you have to go through a little bit of work to actually meet the performer behind the bells."

Not in Rochester, though — Ferguson introduced himself in a cheery Twitter video last week.

"You can finally say, 'Who the heck is playing that thing up there?' As always, if you have any requests just send them my way," he said. "I love hearing from you guys."

Correction (May. 25, 2017): An earlier version of this story misstated the affiliate Ferguson works for, and the number of people who have held this position. The story has been updated.