As Mayo Clinic's newest carillonneur, Austin Ferguson has one foot planted in a 500-year-old musical tradition and one finger on his Twitter feed.
High above the Mayo campus, in the belfry of the Plummer Building, Ferguson serenades clinic employees and patients alike on his carillon, a medieval piano-like instrument that uses bells instead of strings.
Ferguson is only the fourth carillonneur (you have to say it like the French, "care-uh-lawn-NUR") ever employed by Mayo since it installed the instrument in 1928. And, at 24, he is by far the youngest Mayo player and perhaps the youngest in all of North America.
This Longview, Texas, native will tell you the job, for which he was hired in February, rescued him from a life of certain misery. Ferguson was an uninspired law student at the Chicago-Kent School of Law when he got the call that the Mayo job was his. He withdrew from law school that very day. He succeeded Jeffrey Daehn, who held the post for 13 years.
"I had resigned myself that I was going to finish law school and pay off my mountain of student debt (as a law clerk)," Ferguson said, describing his life before his dream job opened and released him from his legal purgatory. "I called the school and said, 'What is the process for withdrawal?' and did it that evening."
Only three months into the job, Ferguson already has begun to mold the job as only a millennial can, using Twitter and Facebook to increase accessibility, taking requests and mixing in crowd-pleasing pop and Disney songs with more traditional fare.
As a result, the man in the bell tower no longer seems so remote. Today, the Plummer bell tower rings with a modern verve as Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water" and Billy Joel's "Uptown Girl" emanate from its apex.
On Tuesday, the day after a horrific terrorist attack in Manchester, England, claimed 22 lives, Ferguson played a memorial concert, ending with "God Save the Queen." The biggest bell then tolled 22 times for the lives lost.
"I can't do much, but hopefully the music can," Ferguson said on Twitter.
"It removes that veil of anonymity enough that people are able to get in contact with me. They can request stuff or they can ask what something was," Ferguson said about his use of social media. "But it still leaves some of the mystique, the music coming from above."
Only hospital-owned carillon
Carillons are musical instruments that consist of at least 23 bronze bells. With 56 bells, Mayo has one of the largest carillons in North America. As the player's hands move over a keyboard of wooden paddles or batons, clappers, pulled by wires, strike the insides of the bells to create music.
Of the 180 carillons in the U.S. and Canada, most of them are at colleges, universities and churches. Mayo's is the only hospital-owned carillon in North America, Ferguson said. The carillon is a legacy of Will and Charles Mayo, who loved music and viewed it as a tribute to soldiers following World War I. Since its installation in 1928, every 30-minute concert or "ring" starts with "America."
Concerts are held at noon Wednesdays and Fridays, 4:45 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays and 7 p.m. Mondays.
Ferguson can recall being fascinated by bells as early as preschool. As a child, he would head into town with his grandmother and listen transfixed to the bells from a church tower. In high school, he took lessons from a professor of organ at Baylor University. At the University of Texas-Austin, opportunity presented itself when the previous bell master was no longer able to climb the stairs.
Whether by accident or design, Ferguson always seemed to find himself around bells and opportunities to play.
"The experience of hearing the music coming from up in the tower, anonymously, just floating out of its own accord, has always captivated me," he said.
Background music for daily life
When he heard about the Mayo opening, Ferguson considered his prospects of getting the job almost nil but figured the interview experience would make it worthwhile. Full-time carillonneur jobs are rare. Ferguson reckons there only are a half dozen in the U.S. The carillonneurs at most universities and churches are music professors and choir directors who play in addition to doing other responsibilities.
Some musicians view the carillon as a concert instrument that should be listened to respectfully in the manner of a piano recital. Ferguson's attitude is more consistent with the carillon's medieval European roots.
Five centuries ago, nearly all carillons were located in churches and city towers. Musicians played as people shopped and went about their daily lives in the plaza below. It was meant to be background music to daily life.
Ferguson is thus untroubled by the notion that Mayo employees and visitors, as they go about their daily business, only might catch snippets of his 30-minute concerts. It's part of the challenge and fun of the job.
"I try to make sure that for the five minutes or so that somebody is listening to me, they're going to hear something that they can enjoy and remember, even though it's going to be only a small part of their day," Ferguson said. "My rule of thumb is that as long as somebody can walk away humming a song or a tune, I've done my job."