The Kerrytown Chime

The Kerrytown Chime is located in the tower of the Kerrytown Shops complex in the Historic District of Ann Arbor. It was built during the 1990s and finished in 1998. It has seventeen bells, forming a chromatic octave and five more half-steps, from a low B to a high G. In contrast to most bell instruments, it has no official chime performer assigned to it. Instead, members of the community are invited to play it.

As an instrument, the chime is similar to the Baird Carillon, only much smaller. Each bell has a small hammer inside it which is connected mechanically to a lever and a foot pedal in the chime stand. The chime stand is almost identical to a carillon keyboard, with only minor differences: the carillon keyboard has many more levers and a seat - one stands to play the chime. Because there is no seat in the chime stand, one can only play three-note chords (two hands and one foot). The smaller number of bells also limits the number of pieces it can play, especially by restricting the instrument to one voice (a skilled carilloneur can play a piece with several voices of different registers).

The idea of the Kerrytown Chime came from St. Ann's Cathedral in Cork, Ireland, where there is a set of seven bells that the public can play. The bell-ropes are numbered, and visitors can pull the ropes in a certain sequence to play a melody. The O'Neal family, longtime Ann Arbor residents, visited the church in the early 1990s and formulated the idea for such an instrument back in their hometown. Joe O'Neal's construction company had built the Kerrytown Shops complex in the early 1980s, and on the advice of an architect, had included a small tower on the roof. Mr. O'Neal had thought at the time that it would be nice to put a clock or a bell in the tower someday, but after the visit to the Irish church, the idea grew, encompassing the installation of a set of bells in the tower, set up so that the public could play them. In 1994, Joe and Karen O'Neal found a set of seven bells in a bell shop in the town of Brooklyn, Michigan. These bells had once belonged to a church in Massachusetts. When the O'Neals consulted Margo Hallstead, chief carilloneur at the University of Michigan at the time, she suggested that they obtain ten more bells to form a seventeen-bell chime. While the original seven bells only formed most of a C-scale, the full set of seventeen gave more than a full chromatic octave, allowing any of a large number of songs to be played. The Kerrytown Shops agreed to have it installed, and it was completed in October 1998.

As it is run right now, the Kerrytown Chime is a very small operation. The Chime Master at Kerrytown is its sole staff. He or she is responsible for opening the chime on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 12:00 PM to 12:30 PM and supervising any members of the public who want to play it. The current Chime Master is Heather O'Neal, daughter of Joe and Karen. She is not a trained as a carilloneur or bell performer of any kind; instead, she was selected for the position based on her ability to work with small children, who often come to play the chime. The children often encourage the adults who bring them to take a turn playing the bells, too. Ms. O'Neal says that nannies with large groups of daycare children often come by the chime, and that the children pressure the nannies to play a song.

It should be explained that no musical experience is needed to play the chime. The levers of the chime stand at Kerrytown are numbered one through seventeen, and the Chime Master maintains a file of cards with songs written out on them as a series of numbers. One simply reads the number off the card and plays the corresponding lever to produce the correct note. No rhythm markings are included on the song-cards, so the performer has to know the rhythm of the song beforehand to construct a coherent melody. As a result of this fact, the file of songs to play is composed entirely of folk melodies for children and other familiar songs. Ms. O'Neal says that some of the most popular musical selections are "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," "Amazing Grace," and "Puff, the Magic Dragon." Some visitors to the chime have experience playing other instruments and are able to pick out melodies once they understand how the chime works, but Ms. O'Neal affirms that very few professionally trained carilloneurs or chime players come to play. Although there are regular visitors, others just stumble upon it as they do their shopping.

The Kerrytown Shops complex, where the chime is housed, is a small shopping center full of independently-owned shops. It is located in the Historic District of the city, and the Ann Arbor Farmer's Market takes place in the parking lot of the Kerrytown Shops on Wednesday and Saturday mornings. As a result of these local enterprises, the area has a very community-oriented atmosphere. As a public musical instrument that can be heard by anyone within a few blocks, the chime fits its surroundings very well. The bells are used by the Kerrytown Shops to some extent as a marketing tool; a sign at the shopping center says "Serenade your friends on the Kerrytown Chime. Bring your friends down to Kerrytown for lunch!" The Chime Master can also arrange birthday parties at the chime. According to Ms. O'Neal, the shop owners are not bothered by the chime, and "seem to like it."

The Kerrytown Chime in its short life of seven years has become an institution of the Ann Arbor Historic District. So far, it has only limited publicity, and the circle of devotees that surrounds it is quite small. It is only a fraction of the size of the Baird Carillon, and it does not have a body of trained professionals on hand to play it, so its potential draw for audiences will always be less than that of the larger instrument. However, the chime is already a fixture in the community, and as publicity improves and more people "discover" it, there is potential for it to attract a greater number of people and increase its unique contribution to Ann Arbor's musical community.