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A side street in the Beguinage near where I’m staying

I am thoroughly enjoying my time in Mechelen studying at the Royal Carillon School “Jef Denyn”. (See my recent post for context.) It’s really lovely here — small, historic, charming, very old European. It is a land of bicycles and cobblestone streets, fantastic women’s boots, meat salads, artisanal shops, chocolate and great beer. I am staying in the house of one of the school’s teachers, which is located in the Beguinage, a designated UNESCO world heritage site. The city is enclosed in a circle so if I get lost I can just keep going and will end up where I started.

It sounds like a wedding here all the time! Starting at 8:00 a.m., you hear bells ringing from lots of churches every hour and half-hour, and a chime every 7.5 minutes from St. Rombouts Cathedral. There are also recitals and students practicing at various times of the day (including me!) from at least three locations, and the sound carries a LONG way.

I will talk about the weather because I am Canadian. The first week was lovely – sunny and about 15 degrees every day, so all the outdoor restaurant patios were filled with people. Now it’s definitely colder and a lot more dreary, but the locals all talk about the exceptional weather they have had this season.

Mechelen's Grote Markt on a beautiful November day

Mechelen’s Grote Markt on a beautiful November day.

It is nice being in a western culture again. I especially enjoy the fact that I recognize all the fruits and vegetables in the grocery store.

On my first full day here, I visited St. Rombouts, the main carillon in Mechelen (St. Rombouts actually has two carillons) and climbed the tower — 320 steps to the original carillon keyboard. I couldn’t find the new one so I asked at the entrance desk and they were very helpful in showing me on their security screens how the new playing cabin is up more steps (!), actually 440 in total, and somewhat hidden. I climbed all 538 steps to the very top of the tower.

On Remembrance Day (my third day here), the school arranged a “carillon crawl” (in the parlance of my Ottawa teacher Dr. Andrea McCrady) of three carillons in Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium. Carillon culture is alive and well in Wallonia. There were about 50 people in our group and the players ranged in age from 7 to 65. It was fantastic to see the little ones playing. I met and had great conversations with a lot of people and it was a lovely day. It’s a good thing the weather was good because there is a lot of being outdoors in this game.

This is the playing cabin at Huy. You can see it’s cold up there, but look at the concentration! This is teacher Elena Sadina with students of the school.

I climbed three towers that day and my knees were killing me. (I have knee issues and have had surgeries on both knees. Fortunately I was able to find ice packs and Ibuprofen the next day, which I use frequently as I am climbing hundreds of steps most days of the week, sometimes more than once a day.)

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I played on the third tower that day in Gembloux and it was quite a mess. It was impossible to hear anything – the mechanism was super clanky, the clock’s quarter-hour rang 30 seconds into my playing so I had to start again, about eight people were jammed into the small playing cabin and I had to yell at them while I was playing to be quiet. The lights went out, people were going in and out of the room which totally changed the quality of the sound, and I’m not used to European carillons, which are completely different. On these instruments, you sit over a lower part of the keyboard and they have a different configuration of pedals at the lower end. I was completely off-balance. So it was a good experience.

My day here usually starts around 9:00 a.m. with practice for a couple of hours and then lessons of some sort. I am enjoying a rather fluid schedule of campanology, harmony lessons and improvisation. The latter is terrifying for me. Of my first attempt, my teacher said, “It wasn’t terrible”! I can live with that.

My teacher for playing and campanology is Koen Cossaert, the director of the school. He is a walking encyclopedia of carillon history, geography, European history, and everything related to the carillon and carillon-making. He is a real gentleman and I enjoy his teaching very much. It is great to get this kind of feedback.

It was amazing to actually be given the keys to St. Rombouts where I could go practice for a couple of hours all by myself. Actually, just figuring out how to get in there — AND GET OUT AGAIN — is a feat. Keys, log in, lights turned on with a stick because I’m too short; this staircase, not that one but if it’s open to the public take the other one; turn off the quarter hour but don’t touch it after that; be respectful of the neighbourhood and call if you get locked in. Great. That was more stressful than the idea of practicing with all the town listening.

So at St. Rombouts, I went from this:

The carillonneur's entrance at St. Rombouts

The carillonneur’s entrance at St. Rombouts

To this!

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This is taken from the Vismarkt. You can hear the bells clearly here all the way from St. Rombouts in the distance.

This is taken from the Vismarkt. You can hear the bells clearly here all the way from St. Rombouts in the distance.

What a rush playing those bells!! I can’t explain it. The first time was like being on the greatest midway ride. It is so fantastic to practice on an instrument like this and really be able to listen and test things out. That’s something we were so very limited in in Ottawa at the Peace Tower.

Later in the week, I went to Leuven, a half-hour drive south of Mechelen, with my host Eddy. Eddy is City Carillonneur at both Mechelen and Leuven so he plays for an hour each week in each city. His playing is so effortless, fluid, flowing, perfectly voiced. I had a chance to play through a couple of pieces too. Actually, I have played three different carillons each week since being here. That’s a bit of heaven for a carillonneur from Canada.

Playing these carillons, and following our carillon crawl in Wallonia, I was reminded how bizarre it is to play this instrument. What other job/hobby/passion do you know of where, to get to your “desk”, you have to climb 200 or more steps, often unlit, with steep ladder-type ascents, frequently accessed via some outdoor or semi-exposed landing where the wind threatens to blow you over, to the bat-infested belfry where the floor is covered in bird you-know-what to finally arrive in the unheated and inhospitable playing cabin?? And still we LOVE it!! Too weird.

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This is a series of shots taken going up to the carillon at Sint-Pieterskerk in Leuven with Eddy Mariens. It’s not glam, that’s for sure!

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