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I am excited to tell you that on the weekend, I am going to Belgium for one month to study at the Royal Carillon School!

I can hear some of you thinking: the what? “A carillon is a musical instrument consisting of at least two octaves of carillon bells arranged in a chromatic series and played from a keyboard permitting control of expression through variation of touch” (Guild of Carillonneurs of North America). Carillons are most commonly found in public areas like church towers, parks, civic centres or university campuses. The instrument evolved from the automatic mechanism that signalled time for the community in the Middle Ages. In fact, the word “clock” derived from the word for bell: the French “cloche”, the Dutch “klok” and the German “glocke” all mean bell. So there you go … a little cocktail conversation for you.

The bells, made of cast bronze, are played from a keyboard that is similar to that of a piano with its equivalent of black and white keys, although the keys on a carillon are long wooden bars, called batons or handles, which you play with your fist. The instrument looks like a pipe organ in that it is essentially a big upright keyboard with pedals.

2006-9-1-Berea-Carillon-KeyEach key, including the pedals, is connected by a series of wires and pulleys to a different bell. The bells are housed somewhere other than the keyboard room – above, below, enclosed or open, typically in the belfry of a tower. Otherwise, the poor player’s head would literally be ringing, and not in a good way. Each bell has a different weight depending upon its pitch, so the lower the sound, the bigger and heavier the bell. The 53-bell, 4 1/2-octave Dominion Carillon in Ottawa, for example, where I learned to play, ranges from 10,090 kg at the lowest note to 4.5 kg at the highest. The trick playing such an instrument, using feet for the lower notes and fists for the upper two-thirds or so of the keyboard, is adjusting to that weight change in each note. Check out this video of Dr. Andrea McCrady, the Dominion Carillonneur and my teacher, giving a brief overview of the instrument.

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The Peace Tower at Parliament Hill in Ottawa. The Dominion Carillon is housed in the tower under the clock. The playing room, where the actual keyboard is located, is just under the clock.

There is a large body of music written especially for the instrument plus transcriptions of classical and popular works. The music is challenging and virtuosic, particularly because the instrument can be completely controlled in terms of volume and touch, just like a piano.

You may have heard a carillon in your community or on your travels – or thought you heard one. A lot of people don’t realize that the heavenly music they are hearing is being played by a real person, or conversely, think the music they are hearing is being played by a real person when in fact it is an automated electronic facsimile. Eeewww. This is because the player is usually up in the bell tower (go ahead, think Quasimodo) and cannot be seen from the grounds over which the music floats.

Some of you know that I am a musician. My degree is in Piano Performance and I did a lot of competitions and concerts back in the day. My career has been in arts administration, and although I haven’t played or taught professionally in a long time, I always think of myself first and foremost as musician. It is what defines me.

I was bitten by the carillon bug about four years ago. I had heard that Carleton University in Ottawa was starting the first carillon performance program in Canada in collaboration with Parliament Hill and Dr. McCrady. I thought that sounded so interesting and decided to follow up on it. I got in touch with the university which put me in touch with Dr. McCrady who invited me up to the tower at Parliament Hill to sit in on one of her daily recitals, and that was it. I had to learn that instrument. I started lessons and made quite rapid progress. In fact, I was possibly within a year of accreditation with The Guild of Carillonneurs of North America but my move from Ottawa to Hong Kong has certainly put a crimp on that plan because sadly, there is no carillon here in HK.

Before leaving Ottawa, I murmured a lot about maybe going to Europe from HK to study carillon. So imagine my joy when my husband came home one day and said he had to go to Belgium on business. Not without me!, I said. The Low Countries, an area of northwestern Europe, particularly the Netherlands and Belgium, are the birthplace of the carillon. (In fact, UNESCO recently added Belgium’s carillon culture to its register of intangible cultural heritage.) So I organized things with the school, which takes students from all over the world and will accommodate various periods of study time, and I’m off to Mechelen on Saturday for one month. Mostly I want lessons and “tower time” but I will also be studying campanology, harmony, composition, and improvisation. What fun!!

A friend described this upcoming sojourn of mine as “seriously bizarre” and I think she’s right. But for those of you who know me as a musician, you will understand completely (as does she) why this is so exciting for me.

Anyway, I haven’t had nearly enough change in my life lately. It’s time for another adventure! I will try to blog from there; the “adventure” will just have a different ring to it. (Ha! Carillon joke, get it?)

Note: You might also visit the World Carillon Federation website.