Carillon bells

Music to Medical Students’ Ears

By David Pratt
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On a July evening, eight members of the U-M Medical School class of 2022, soon to experience their first shifts in hospitals and clinics, listened and learned.

They gathered at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Tower on the University of Michigan’s North Campus for a program, “Social Justice in Arts & Healing: The Art of Listening,” with composer Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra, visiting carillonist and carillon instructor, sponsored by the Medical School’s Medical Humanities Path of Excellence. “Carillon music in a public space meets social justice meets medical student education,” says Mary Blazek, M.D., clinical associate professor of psychiatry and Humanities Path director, who attended the event, along with several of the Path’s core faculty, including Joel D. Howell, M.D., Ph.D., the Elizabeth Farrand Collegiate Professor of the History of Medicine and professor of internal medicine. Howell, himself a musician, introduced Ruiter-Feenstra.

The Humanities Path of Excellence encourages students to connect medicine to the humanities, and helps them develop empathy, awareness of social context, and comfort with ambiguity and uncertainty — human capacities crucial to patient care. Ruiter-Feenstra alluded to such capacities in describing her process and the pieces, all her own compositions, that she was about to play on the Robert and Ann Lurie Carillon: “Our Time: Me Too,” dedicated to survivors of abuse at Michigan State University and throughout the world; and “Belonging: A Carillon Call to Care for All,” whose four movements lift up the voices and stories of Muslim/Arab, African American, Jewish, and Latinx immigrant dedicatees who have endured prejudice, marginalization, and oppression.

The composer asked students to imagine diverse patient outcomes wherein doctors listen fully, compassionately, and openly; or only partially, distractedly, or with preconceived ideas. Ruiter-Feenstra then invited the students to question and critique her own process, which, by its nature, runs the risk of appropriating the trauma of oppressed persons.

As the sun set, it was time to hear — and see — Ruiter-Feenstra play. 

The Lurie Carillon, installed in a small chamber near the top of the tower, consists of five octaves’ worth of wooden levers and foot pedals, connected to 60 bronze bells, ranging from 12 pounds to six tons. The lower-pitched bells hang below the carillonist. High-pitched bells hang just above, with middle-pitched bells at the top. The carillonist sits before the levers and depresses them with downward motions of her hand, curled into a fist. Carillons are mechanical, not electronic, so it is physical work, especially the playing of lower pitches.

The medical students explored the catwalks around and between the bells, where the noise level reached up to 110 dB; some even tried playing a few notes. They described the listening experience as “visceral” but also “jarring,” and one student described a layering of sounds she heard in “Our Time: Me Too.” Ruiter-Feenstra observed, “That is what survivorship is like; the trauma is always there, underneath. But it’s critical to listen to the voices of survivors.”

Howell encouraged the students to listen from the ground as well. The carillon, after all, is a public instrument, uniquely suited to Ruiter-Feenstra’s social messages.

At the concert’s end, applause came from within the carillon chamber and from observers on the ground. “We experienced the music in the tower and from out in the world,” says Howell. “We learned the process by which it was created and heard about the people whose stories Pamela told. Similarly, we, as physicians, listen to our patients’ stories and may re-tell them to a larger audience, in the hope of achieving social justice.”

View more photos from the performance. 

Leisa Thompson Photography