“Quasimodo. He definitely looks like Quasimodo,” says U-M freshman Courtney Beleck. Craning her neck while gazing up at Burton Memorial Tower, she’s speculating about who the tower’s bell ringer might be.

“No, no, no, no, no,” responds her friend Chris Padmos. “He is a seventy-year-old man with white hair. But I wish it was Quasimodo.”

“I’m always looking forward to self-deprecating humor,” says the real carillonneur, Steven Ball, who sometimes dons a cape and waves a plastic bat to amuse visitors. “We are not above the cheap and trite.” But Ball is just thirty-one, and he looks more like Captain Jack Sparrow than the tragic hero of The Hunchback of Notre Dame–he’s tall and lanky, with spiky, gelled hair and a pair of small hoops in his ears.

Ball is currently overseeing the last stages of a year-long reconstruction of the Baird Carillon–the formal name of the fifty-five-bell instrument in Burton Tower. After a complete mechanical restoration, the carillon will again ring in June. A grand opening celebration on June 28 will be one in a series of festivities to celebrate the tower’s seventy-fifth anniversary.

In the meantime, Ball is playing his first love, the organ, at the Michigan Theater and the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Detroit, as well as the U-M’s younger carillon in the Lurie Tower on North Campus. Most weekdays, he or an assistant puts on a thirty-minute performance there at noon, featuring everything from Bach to the Star Wars theme. They also play current hits–“whatever the students want,” Ball says.

“Professor Ball has probably the biggest impact of any professor on campus, as his music touches the lives of thousands of students and colleagues everyday,” says musicology prof Mark Clague. “They may not even notice how the campus carillons’ art has shaped their day, but they have a bit more bounce in their step as they head to class.”

Born in 1979 on a family farm near the tiny hamlet of Wright in Ottawa County, Ball spent his childhood as many do, taking for granted things that he only later realized should be treasured–“the non-urban environment. Walking out to see nature.

“So when I finally got the job here at U of M, I had the chance to buy a farm,” he says. “Now I live in an 1830s Federal-style farmhouse near Manchester, complete with rolling pastures. I still wake up to a rooster crowing every morning,” says Ball, as his smile widens. “And let me tell you, fresh eggs really do taste better.”

Ball says his first musical interests “were instinctual. I was instantly able to play the keyboard at the age of two, and I commenced the formal study of piano at the age of six.” But even then, he says, he knew he really wanted to be an organist. “You don’t realize the realities of life at six,” Ball says, leaning forward intently, “but I knew I loved the organ.”

Just sixteen when he started U-M, Ball earned bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in organ performance. In school, he also began to play the carillon, a study he continued in Europe on a Fulbright fellowship. Now an assistant professor of music, he’s also director of the Stearns Collection, which he describes as “one of the world’s largest collections of musical instruments, currently going through an identity crisis.” The instruments are dispersed in six different buildings around campus, but Ball hopes to bring them back to a single site. He has also mastered the casting of bells and co-teaches a U-M class in bell making. Though it’s open to engineering, art, and music students, for their final exam, “they have to play a concert, whether they are musical or not.”

Despite Ball’s accomplishments, Quasimodo jokes will always be an occupational hazard. “How do people react when I tell them about my job?” Ball releases a nervous laugh. “‘You do what?’ is the general response … The reactions are across the board.

“The biggest misconception of my work is that people don’t realize that when the tower makes noise, somebody is up there making music. Not speakers. Not electricity.”

For the Baird restoration, Ball ruled out replacing any of the bells. Removing them, he said, would be a “tragedy for history. They are the finest carillon bells that money can buy.” At first, he thought the original keyboard had been destroyed, but after what seemed like “a wild goose chase,” he traced it to a private museum in Cincinnati and reacquired it for the university. It’s now being installed, making this “the first time in carillon history that an instrument has truly been restored.”

Ball’s passion for the past is matched by a concern for a future of the instruments he loves. “Everything is shifting away from acoustic. Bigger, brighter, faster, louder. I can only keep up to a certain extent. If the rest of the world is being put on musical steroids, where does that leave us?”

But with June almost here, he is centered for the moment on the restoration. “A lot of people have told me they have missed hearing” the carillon, he says. None more than the carillonneur. He’s looking forward to the day when the Baird’s bells will again “perfume the air with music.”

This article has been edited since it appeared in the May 2011 Ann Arbor Observer. The number of bells in the Baird Carillon has been corrected.