It was on a whim, during orientation for first-year students back in 2017, that Annie Gao took a tour of the Yale Memorial Carillon, located in Harkness Tower. The experience sparked four years of “ringing” joy. 

Intrigued by the carillon, which consists of an organ-like console and 54 bells, Gao subsequently attended an information session about auditioning for the Yale Guild of Carillonneurs, the student organization responsible for playing the famed instrument. At the meeting, seasoned carillonneurs played two practice instruments to offer a sense of the carillon’s sound. 

The ringing envelopes you and it feels magical,” said Gao, a resident of Branford College. “I got lost in it.”

Gao, who played the piano throughout her childhood, poured herself into learning the carillon. She took advantage of free lessons offered by the guild. Then she endured a five-week audition and was accepted into the 26-member guild.

That was the beginning of the best part of my life at Yale,” said Gao, a computer science major, who will start a job in Silicon Valley after graduation.

Annie Gao playing the carillon.
Gao playing the carillon.

After the audition, she received further training from Ellen Dickinson ’97, ’99 MUS, director of bell programs at Yale and a long-time teacher to guild members. The carillon’s console features a keyboard of wooden batons paired with a pedalboard. Carillonneurs press the keys with their fists while their feet work the pedals.

It’s definitely an entertaining coordination challenge,” Gao said. 

She practiced during her free time throughout her sophomore and junior years, often searching the guild’s expansive files of sheet music for new pieces to master. Guild members ring the carillon twice a day, at 12:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Each 30-minute campus serenade gives the carillonneurs sufficient time to play about six songs, Gao explained.  

She has created arrangements for pop songs, such as “You Raise Me Up.” She has also performed a traditional Chinese folk song and a few hit songs from Disney movies.

People listen when you play something they recognize,” she said. “It makes them happy, or less annoyed if you wake them up from a nap.” 

Among her repertoire of recognizable tunes, Gao enjoyed playing an arrangement of variations on “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” a soothing lullaby for napping undergraduates. 

COVID-19 denied Gao the opportunity to tour Europe with the guild. There was a silver lining: this spring the guild hosted renowned European carillonneurs for a series of masterclasses. 

That was a blast,” said Gao.