Minnesota native and Nobel laureate Bob Dylan received a host of tributes on his 76th birthday this past Wednesday. One of the most unique, we're guessing, rang out from the top of the Plummer Building on the Mayo Clinic campus in Rochester. That's where Austin Ferguson marked the day by performing a selection of Dylan songs on Mayo's 56-bell carillon. ("Hurricane," "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Make You Feel My Love," in case you missed the show.)
Ferguson, who became just the fourth carillonneur in Mayo Clinic history when he took over for Jeff Daehn in February, tells us he tries "to stay conscious of what's going on" when he decides what to play each day. Sometimes, that means choosing songs that give a playful nod to the weather or significant dates in history. Other times, the inspiration is more solemn. After the recent bombing in Manchester, England, Ferguson played a selection of British folk songs and hymns. "This is kind of what the Mayo brothers envisioned when they had the carillon installed in this building, that music in and of itself is part of the healing process," he tells KAAL-TV.
Ferguson is dedicated to continuing that tradition. "I take my job not only as a bell ringer but also a music therapist very, very seriously," he tells us. But the 24-year-old Texas native is also putting his own stamp on his "dream job." He's given the carillon its own Twitter handle (@mayoclinicbells) and has a long list of concerts, commissions and community events he's eager to establish. (Think "Caroling with the Carillon" and the like.) He's also been known to mix a little Lady Gaga and Adele in with his Mozart and Bach. "I want to modernize what is an ancient instrument," he says. (Or as the Rochester Post-Bulletin puts it, he "has one foot planted in a 500-year-old musical tradition and one finger on his Twitter feed.")
We couldn't help but wonder how someone so young came to play the carillon in the first place. He tells us his love for the instrument developed when he was in high school and took organ lessons at Baylor University, where his instructor was also the university's carillonneur. She introduced Ferguson to the carillon, and he never looked back.
Well, almost never. After receiving a bachelor's degree from the University of Texas at Austin — where he served as the school's carillonneur — Ferguson enrolled in law school. But his heart wasn't in it, and when he learned Mayo was looking for a new carillonneur, he applied for the job. "It was a pipe dream," he says, adding that he was thrilled just to get a phone interview. When he was eventually offered the job, "I cried," he tells us. (He also immediately withdrew from law school.)
Now, instead of reading contracts and case law, Ferguson's days are filled with music. He practices several hours each day to be ready for daily performances and periodic recitals. He also gives tours of the carillon, which gives him a chance to connect with Mayo patients. "One patient told me that hearing the bells made the pain he was experiencing worth it," Ferguson tells us. "That's the best job validation I could ever have."
Wherever you’re sitting, you can hear Ferguson play on Thursday, May 25, at 4:45 p.m. CDT during a Facebook Live event on Minnesota Public Radio. He’s taking requests for the event; you can cast your vote here. Then, ring our bell by leaving a comment below before you use the social media tools atop this page to share this story with others.