The Man Behind UT’s Tower Bells / by Tess Cagle

On Tuesday, around noon, Austin Ferguson, music and government senior, hiked up the stairs of the Tower to sit down on an old wooden bench and flood students’ ears with the sound of the Knicker Carillon, more commonly referred to as the tower bells. Students scurried back and forth across the Forty Acres and the melody of the bells resounded throughout campus. On this particular day, the song Ferguson played was “Clocks” by Coldplay. 

Since the carillon is located at the top of the Tower, not many have witnessed Ferguson play a recital in person. Ferguson said one of his favorite aspects of playing the Tower bells is the anonymity.

“I have crippling stage fright, and there were times I couldn’t perform at an organ recital because I was so scared,” Ferguson said. “Not being able to be seen is wonderful but it’s also the paradox of playing the instrument. On one hand, you are completely anonymous to your audience, but it is also the single most public instrument in the entire world. You can hear it from a mile away if the acoustics are right. It’s a fun contrast.”

The carillon is played by thousands of musicians across the world. With a background in piano and organ playing, Ferguson, the current Director of the Carillon Guild for UT, said he first began taking carillon lessons when he was a sophomore in high school, studying the organ at Baylor University during the summer.

“When I was on campus one day, I happened to run into Baylor’s carillonneur. We got to talking, and she suggested I try the carillon since I played the organ,” Ferguson said. “I absolutely fell in love with it. I played all through high school, and then when I got to college I saw we had the biggest carillon in Texas and told myself I had to do it.”

Despite his love for anonymity while playing, Ferguson said he tries to give the Tower bells their own persona by interacting with UT students through Twitter, using the handle @TexasCarillon.

“I do try and utilize social media a lot just because you wouldn’t guess the number of people who have no idea an actual person is playing the bells, and that it’s not computerized,” Ferguson said. “That’s definitely what I try to eliminate, because carillonneurs are people and we enjoy what we do.”

Ferguson has many fond memories playing the carillon, but one that stands out to him most is also one that he refers to jokingly as a “near-death experience.” He performed for the 2013 commencement, and after he was finished playing he stepped out onto the observation deck to watch the rest of the ceremony.

“I had asked the people below to let me know when they were about to do the fireworks because I knew they were really loud,” Ferguson said. “I couldn’t really hear what was going on, but I could tell that people were getting ready to leave. And then all of the sudden there was an orange fireball hurled right at my face. It missed me by 3 feet. I was so scared, and it was explosively loud.”

Thanks to the carillon, Ferguson said he has had many memorable experiences and even met many mentors and friends.

Professor Andrew Dell’Antonio, faculty advisor for the Carillon Guild, has known Ferguson since he first started school at UT. Dell’Antonio said he and Ferguson have become fairly close in the past year, since Ferguson has become the director.

“Austin is extremely articulate and enthusiastic, very knowledgeable about many things, and lately especially passionate about the carillon, its music and its culture,” Dell’Antonio said.

As the head carillonneur, Ferguson also teaches other students how to play. He currently has two students. Nicolette Cardiel, human development and family sciences senior, has been one of his students for the past two years. She said Ferguson is a “very open person and really patient.” 

“He won’t get upset if you’re doing something wrong; he’ll just show you how to do it the right way,” Cardiel said. “He’s been really helpful. He’s just one of those genuine people.”

Since Ferguson is about to graduate, he said he is looking to find a way to keep the carillon as a part of his life once he is no longer a student at UT.

“I am in the process of negotiating possibly staying on as the carillonneur full time after I graduate,” Ferguson said. “I’ve actually picked out all the law schools I’m considering by if there’s a carillon near by, and if I know the carillonneur.”

Ferguson said he draws inspiration to continue playing the carillon from the instrument’s rich history. According to Ferguson, the carillon was invented over 500 years ago, and it started out as a civic instrument, played in market squares in Europe.

“To just carry on a tradition that is that old is amazing, and it truly is the people’s instrument because no matter where you are, if there’s a carillon, you will hear it,” Ferguson said. “In some capacity, you are actively engaged with the music. I really like the sense that it can draw so many people together. In that small little way, you can influence their day.”