Student finds niche playing Smith Carillon

james-lisi-7

Penn State Behrend sophomore James Lisi began playing the campus’ Smith Carillon this fall. He plays regularly throughout the week on the campus’ practice carillon (pictured) and played a concert during finals week for the campus community. While he’s been a musician since he was a child, mastering the carillon has been a new kind of challenge. “Instead of having the keys right next to you, you have to branch out,” Lisi said. “This wears your hands out a lot faster because you have to move them all over, but there are pedals too, so some of the notes you can play with your feet, which makes it easier.”

By Steve Orbanek
Marketing Communications Specialist, Penn State Behrend

Walk into Penn State Behrend’s Larry and Kathryn Smith Chapel on a weekday morning and chances are you’ll hear James Lisi before you see him.

He’ll be playing one of the building’s many pianos. Or pedaling away on the practice carillon.

“I start every day by playing music here,” said Lisi, a sophomore psychology major. “When I play the piano or the carillon, it gets me going and sets the tone for the day.”

Lisi, a Cleveland native, has always appreciated music. He started singing in third grade and began playing the piano two years later. He is also a member of the Choirs of Penn State Behrend.

While he has experience playing several other instruments, Lisi said he was taken aback to learn about the college’s carillon.

“I had never heard of one before. There are only 200 or so in the country,” he said. “It’s just a really, really rare instrument.”

The 48-bell carillon, along with the chapel’s bell tower, was installed at Penn State Behrend in 2002 as a gift of the late Floyd and Juanita Smith, parents of Larry Smith, president and owner of Automation Devices in Fairview, Pa., and a longtime supporter of the college.

The carillon is an unconventional instrument, to say the least, according to Lisi.

“Instead of having the keys right next to you, you have to branch out,” he said. “This wears your hands out a lot faster because you have to move them all over, but there are pedals too, so some of the notes you can play with your feet, which makes it easier.”

Lisi’s past musical experience is serving him well, as is regular practice and lessons with Daniel Frankforter, professor emeritus of history and the college’s carillonneur.

Lisi is now playing the carillon on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. He spends hours in Smith Chapel, both studying and playing the pianos and carillon.

“I just love this whole building,” Lisi said. “I get to come here and play three different instruments. It’s a nice way for me to relieve stress. It’s definitely my favorite thing about Behrend.”

During finals week, Lisi played several holiday songs as part of a half-hour carillon concert for the campus community. Students, faculty and staff members were encouraged to gather at Ben Lane Plaza to enjoy hot chocolate as they listened to the bells chime from atop the carillon tower.

“I made some mistakes,” Lisi said with a smile, “but I knew I was not going to be perfect the first time I played publicly. Thankfully, I don’t think anyone noticed.”

He will get another chance to impress this spring at a second carillon concert to be held during finals week.

And if things go his way, Lisi will not be the only one performing. He is currently introducing the carillon to several of his friends.

“I’m really working to persuade some of my friends to play it as well,” he said. “It’s just a totally different kind of instrument. I love the high notes on it, and it’s great that we have one of these right here at Behrend.”

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