Frank Della Penna looks down on the world. Or at least he has looked down on Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Canada, France, Holland, Belgium and Switzerland.
Della Penna, 26, is a carillonneur, a bell player. He can be found performing concerts high above the rooftops, sitting in a small room in front of a strange-looking keyboard of batons. His feet dance ot the pedals.
His hands and feet move simultaneously to produce music ranging from "Greensleeves" to "Stars and Stripes Forever." He pounds the batons with spread hands or fists that he protects with specillay made black leather gloves. The batons and pedals are connected directly to the bells' clappers.
Carillons consist of 23 or more cast bronze bells. If the instrument has fewer bells, it is a chime. The largest carillon in the world, at Kirk in the Hills church in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., has 77 bells and weighs 64,000 pounds. The Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial carillon at Riverside Church in New York City has the heaviest tuned bell, it weighs more than 20 tons and is 10 feet, 2 inches in diameter.
Carillon bells are housed in towers and are subjected to the elements. According to Della Penna, temperature changes have no effect on the bells, but pigeons can be a problem.
"Their droppings are so acidic they could change the tone of the bells," he said.
Virtually all carillons in this hemisphere are, understandably, stationary. There is, however, one exception, a 35-bell, 4,000-pound traveling carillon owned by the I.T. Verdin Co., a bell manufacturer in Cincinnati. Della Penna, a company representative, brought the carillon to his Columbia, Md., home for several weeks last summer. He traveled with the carillon to concert dates at the Lincoln Memorial, Kings Dominion, Busch Gardens, and other Washington and Baltimore locations.
The carillon traveled attached to a red pick-up truck. Della Penna found himself and his cargo an object of curiosity.
On his trip east from Cincinnati, he met a toll taker on the Pennysvania Turnpike who would not let the carillon through until Della Penna played several songs. Strains of "Danny Boy" drifted over the four lanes of the turnpike. By the time Della Penna pulled into the gas station in Columbia, he was used to people's stares. So, when the station owner asked him for "two tunes in payment for fixing your tire," the carillonneur was prepared.
Della Penna began playing the carillon in his senior year in high school. He was an accomplished pianist who had just begun studying with Frank Law, who was also the carillonneur at the Washington Memorial Chapel in Valley Forge, Pa. Della Penna was preparing for a piano concert when Law said to him. "As soon as you finish this concert, you will become a carilloneur."
He spent two years studying at the French Carillon School in Tourcoing, France, where he earned the title of master carillonneur. The school is one of four in the world that teach the art of carillon playing. There is a school in Belgium and one in Holland. In this country, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor offers a major in carillon playing.
Della Penna was the first American to study at the French Carillon School and now is "one of three or four master carillonneurs in this country," he says. Altogether the United States has aproximately 100 professional carillonneurs and 160 carillons. Many of these are played by amateurs, some self-taught, Della Penna points out.
"A lot of people say carillon playing is a lost art. Although we do have a great many young people who are interested in learning the instrument, some older carillonneurs lock themselves in the tower and never let anyone see them play. What will happen when that person dies? Who will carry on the art?"
Unlike playing in a concert hall, the carillonneur performs alone in an enclosed cabin many feet above his audience. Some carillonneurs dress formally in suits and ties. Della Penna wears jeans.
Physical exertion takes its toll on a carillonneur. Della Penna, who majored in physical education at Westchester State College in Pennsylvania, says, "When I was preparing for my final exam in Europe, I conditioned physically. I did sit-ups, push ups - up to 200 a day, 25 at a time - and I jogged."
Even getting to the carillon cabin often requires energy. Della Penna tells of climbing 453 steps to play one carillon in Belgium. At school in France, he had to climb 227 steps daily to practice.
He played for the 100,000 residents of Tourcoing every day during his two years at the carillon school. In Europe bells are a part of the culture, says Della Penna.
"It's part of the whole atmosphere," he says. "In the United States, though, very few people know what a carillon is. One summer I worked as a guide for the church in Valley Forge and I kept track. Only about 10 out of 50,000 people knew what a carillon was."