Among the many irregularities on campus last fall was the absence of music emanating from the bell tower of Harcourt Parish on Friday afternoons, courtesy of a group called the Kenyon Pealers. During the school year, the Pealers celebrate the end of the week’s classes on Fridays from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m by “pealing” a mix of traditional hymns, folk songs and contemporary tunes on century-old, thousand-pound bells.
When this semester started, Emily Criss ’21 was the only enrolled Kenyon student who had ever pealed before. She’s working to make sure she isn’t one of the last.
The Friday celebration has been a staple since 1983, resurrected from a 40-year run of pealing that ended in the 1920s. Criss likens pealing to an oral tradition in that most students learn by observing the more experienced players. If younger pealers don’t learn a skill, it may be lost, at least temporarily. For the Pealers, it’s all the more urgent to pass on that knowledge as Criss prepares for graduation.
Criss discovered pealing accidentally during her first year at Kenyon, she said. Hearing the bells for the first time drew her to the source of the music. She ventured through a small door to the left of Harcourt Parish’s west entrance, up the narrow, winding staircase and discovered a group of upperclass students performing in the bell tower, and soon began regularly pealing herself.
While many upperclass students were enthusiastic pealers, Criss’s class was already behind on recruiting new Pealers before the pandemic. When she was abroad her junior year, no underclass students became regulars. Still, Criss knew that the knowledge would be retained somehow, noting that Chaplain and Priest-in-charge of Harcourt Parish Rachel Kessler ’04 pealed as a student. “If [the group] did die, I’m sure she could resurrect it, but we don’t want to put that on her. We want to keep being student-led and student-driven,” Criss said. Her imminent graduation this semester lit a fire for her to recruit more members so the tradition would not end with the pandemic.
Criss sent out an email in February to recruit members. While spontaneity used to be a hallmark of the group, because of the pandemic, Criss now schedules two interested respondents to join her in the tower every Friday (barring quiet period).
But Criss soon discovered that teaching is different than just playing. For instance, Pealers begin and end each session with complicated, unwritten patterns. They’re played by multiple people simultaneously, and Criss learned them by observing a cadre of enthusiastic pros. Being the sole experienced Pealer and out of practice, she faced a learning curve when explaining the moves she was accustomed to simply performing.
New Pealers face a learning curve, too. “You can’t practice really, you’re just up there and you have to play and everyone can hear you. You have to be okay with that. You’re going to be bad for a while, but it’s all part of the process,” Criss said.
Natalie Wilson ’22 is one of several new Pealers. After semesters of curiosity, she found more free time this semester as campus life has been quieter and now enjoys the chance to “scratch that musical itch,” she wrote in an email to the Collegian. Wilson wants to continue pealing next year to cheer travelers down Middle Path and maintain the tradition. “Hearing the bells always made me happy, so maybe I’m making other people’s Friday afternoons a little bit brighter too,” she said.
Renewed student interest is good news for the Pealers, as well as for anyone who enjoys hearing a rendition of “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys ring across campus. Thanks to Criss, the bells will continue to ring.