In Depth: Bell & Scroll

Professor of German Studies, Emeritus, Peter Frenzel with two of the Wesleyan bells

Professor of German Studies, Emeritus, Peter Frenzel with two of the Wesleyan bells (Image from Wesleyan University website)

It’s 12 PM, which means if you are anywhere near South College, you can probably hear the ringing of the Wesleyan’s famous bells. On any given weekday, members of the mysterious Bell & Scroll society ascend the winding spiral staircase to reach the 24-bell Wesleyan Carillon for their daily serenade. As part of Wesleying‘s “In Depth” series, I sat down with Bell Ringer ’17 (a student member of Bell & Scroll who wished to remain anonymous) and Emeritus Professor of German and Medieval Studies Peter Frenzel to find out what Bell & Scroll is all about.

How did you get involved in Bell & Scroll?
Bell Ringer: I had a friend who I had talked to about Bell & Scroll. From my curiosity with the bells, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to actually play them?” My friend was going abroad and said I could come in to replace him, and that’s how I started.

So is there any sort of formal application process?
BR: There’s two ways people get involved. One is word of mouth, you know someone who knows someone. Then there are the people who take the initiative and contact us.

As far as the songs you play, how are those chosen?
BR: You can play anything really, as long as it’s not offensive, I guess. We have this book, I remember it has the Israeli national anthem in it. One time we played it and some people got upset. We don’t play that anymore. Peter, someone complained about you playing Christmas music once, right?

Peter Frenzel: Oh yes, but we still play Christmas music.

Peter and Bell Ringer then digressed into a discussion about a new person who had reached out to Bell & Scroll with interest in joining. Peter described the new member as being very enthusiastic. Then the two of them talked about training the new member/having him as an apprentice under one of the current ringers. After this little break, our interview continued.

What is your favorite song to play?
BR: I really like playing the theme from the Largo of Dvorák’s New World Symphony (commonly known as “Goin’ Home”). I actually listened to the whole thing this morning while I was doing my lab work. Also, basically any Beatles song, and if you ever hear “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift, that’s me.

PF: I do a lot of improvising because I’m not musical.

BR: I can’t believe you don’t have any formal training!

You also play the bells, Peter?
PF: Sometimes. Not often because I’m a million years old, and I get pretty winded trying to go up those spiral stairs.

Peter then went into a brief explanation of how he started playing the bells.

PF: I was first called upon to play the bells for my commencement. The way commencement works is, graduates and faculty line up at the top of Foss Hill by the observatory and march in procession down the hill to take their seats for the ceremony. Just before this happens, traditionally we have the bells ringing for about half an hour. There is a pregnant silence for about 4 minutes, and then the procession begins. There’s usually something like Japanese drumming once the procession reaches the bottom of the hill, then the ceremony, and then the bells are rung after the ceremony.

In 1999, maybe 2000, there were no bell ringers available. The music department had taken care of getting bell ringers before, but this year they couldn’t get anyone. I decided that I would do it myself. It was hard because I had to ring until 4 minutes before the ceremony, run up the hill with my big robes, and then process down with the rest of the faculty and graduates. I managed, though.

I think I put down in the program, “Bell Ringer by Ernest Toller” and nobody seemed to mind.

At any rate, it didn’t take me long to learn the bells for convocation. I don’t play the piano, but I fool around, and I have a lot of fun with it. I sort of trained myself for the commencement ceremony, and then we had an article in the Argus (that would have been around 2000). From that article, I got a knock on my door from a young woman named Holly Schroll ’02 who wanted to learn how to play the bells. I said yes, and together we learned. There were two others soon after that, Gabe Dillon ’03 and Pete Harvey ’03. They showed up, and then came Mariah Klaneski Reisner ’04. Those were the founders of the Bell & Scroll (which was named as a play on Holly’s last name).

Do you know how they heard about ringing the bells to approach you about it?
PF: I remember announcing it in class (maybe Intro to Medieval Studies?). I asked if anyone was interested. From that we got about four or five, two or three stuck with it.

One more question: how do you feel about the bells being featured so prominently on the NESCAC Snapstory?
BR: Hugely excited! It was a great day when we got two videos up on the NESCAC story! I wasn’t playing that day, but the person who was was so happy! We’re also trying to increase our social media presence. There’s the Bell & Scroll twitter, sometimes we take song requests over YikYak, and you can always email us at bells[at]wesleyan[dot]edu

PF: We should really get some kind of officer of propaganda for the Bell & Scroll, to get the word out for recruitment and other things.

Are you currently looking for recruits?
BR: Absolutely! Send us an email at bells[at]wesleyan[dot]edu if you’re interested (especially if you’re a freshman)! We like to have around 10 members so that we have two people per weekday on duty. We’re really inclusive; we don’t really ask that much: some basic keyboard skills are preferred, and it’s nice if you’re able to read music, but not required.

PF: We’re not a secret society, though sometimes it ends up seeming that way because the bells are one of few musical instruments where the player cannot be seen. If someone were to camp out outside of South College, it wouldn’t be hard to figure out who was in Bell & Scroll.

BR: As far as anonymity goes, our rules are that you are welcome to tell whoever you want that you are in Bell & Scroll, you just cannot reveal the identity of any other member. But there is some romance to the anonymity.

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Hopefully you’re a little less mystified by Bell & Scroll now. If you want to read up more on the history of the bells, check out these articles.