As previously mentioned, I joined a choir called The Velvet Curtain Singers. We rehearse at Metropolitan United Church, in downtown Toronto. One of our members is the carillonneur at the church. He’s the one who plays the carillon – the church bells. He kindly offered to give a tour and demo of the carillon last night. I had heard that it’s not an easy tour. The staircase is killer and claustrophobia-inducing. I almost declined, given my weak knees, and displeasure of tight places. Then I remembered that part of my Life Improvement Mission is to have new experiences. I had to do it.
What an experience! The history of the church is impressive enough. Add the carillon – the first one in Canada, installed in 1922 – and it’s an adventure. (There are only eleven carillons in Canada right now.) By the church’s main entrance, there is a narrow door that opens to a very narrow spiral staircase. It’s tight and the steps are spaced a little too far apart, making the ascent a real workout for the legs. The steps are small triangles coming off a supporting wooden pole. The first 50 steps up took us to the rehearsal carillon. Further up, we stopped to gaze across the length of the steeple, above the sanctuary. It felt illicit to see the secret parts of the church, accessed by the secret staircase. Up another 50 spiral steps, and two regular flights of stairs, dizzy and breathless, we landed at the carillon “keyboard” that sounds the bells.
Our guide, Gerald, played us an exciting piece. It was 10:00 pm. I’m sure everyone within the two-block hearing range was wondering what the occasion was. Prior to this, I’d never given any thought to how a carillon was played. It’s not the Tarzan-style rope-swinging you may have seen altar boys do in movies. A carillon’s bells are stationary. A clapper strikes them. The clappers are activated by the keyboard-like instrument beneath them. It’s set up as the black and white keys on a piano, but they are large wooden batons that are played by hitting them with the bottom of the fist. When Gerald played, it looked absolutely violent. The large bells are activated by the foot pedals, so he looked like he was dancing and punching at the same time. Then he invited us to play. I made up a tune and was pleased as punched to hear it ring through the night.
As if this weren’t thrilling enough, Gerald then opened a trap door in the ceiling and invited us up a steep ladder, onto the roof, at the level of the bells. I’m not so good with heights. I declined. But when I heard everyone else’s elated reactions, I decided to go for it; I didn’t want to miss out. With a bit of help and encouragement, I climbed up and saw the 54 bells suspended in the sky. The view from the tower was terrific. It was a rainy night, and everything seemed mystical.
The descent down the stairway to heaven took longer than the climb up. Climbing stairs is done on the toes, but going down requires heels to be stable. With the steps being smaller than my feet, I only felt secure doing down like an 18-month old. First left foot on the step, then right foot joined it, on an angle. I was afraid those twisty worn-out wooden steps would have me tumbling down like a cartoon, birds and stars circling my head at the bottom. I was all tense and holding onto that pole for dear life.
Aside from that, the experience was magnificent. It was a privilege to have had the opportunity. My legs are so sore today from being tense both up and down the stairs, but I’ll be fine. Now I want to go stand outside the church on Sundays mornings, when Gerald plays from 10:30 – 11:00 am. He’s been playing this carillon since 1997, and tours around the world playing others, too.
If you’d like to hear the carillon, it’s at the Metropolitan United Church, 56 Queen St. East. (2 blocks east of Yonge St.) And if you’d like to book a tour, Gerald Martindale can be reached at 416.363.0331, ext. 30. Wear sensible shoes and clothes you don’t mind getting dusty.
Climbing Canada’s first bell tower – and playing the carillon – ended up being a perfect way to be out on a L.I.M. (or ledge of a church roof).