Learning to Play the World’s Largest Instrument

Ever wondered how one person can make the carillon tower bells ring? Well now’s your chance to learn.

Naperville carilloneur Timothy Sleep, and the Naperville Park District, are giving residents a chance to learn how to play the carillon bells.
For the past 9 years, Sleep has brought his music to the Naperville community. He shares his love of the instrument with anyone with a musical background who’s willing to learn.

“I really enjoyed it, and if you like doing something you like sharing it with other people,” said Sleep.

“It’s amazing. I can’t believe they offer lessons for the carillon so I signed up,” said David Harnett, a local musician who signed up for the lessons.

Harnett plays the drums and the organ so he decided to try his hand at the carillon. But before all of Naperville hears Harnett’s wrong notes, he gets to practice on the instrument in the visitors’ center, without the bells.

The carillon is very similar to an organ, it has sharps and flats and the notes are even in the same order.

“It’s 72 bells, and when we depress the claviers, it pulls the clapper against the bell,” said Sleep. “I wasn’t prepared for how much control you’d have over the sound, so you can control the louds and the softs. It’s really an expressive instrument, and an elegant instrument.”
Instead of pressing the batons with their fingertips, a carillonneur uses their fist.

“It’s a controlled strike, and the idea is as you engage the baton using the force from the forearm as you bring it down you tip slightly forward and that’s where you get your most control,” explained Sleep. “It’s almost like a circular motion. It looks like we’re pounding, but the trouble with that is it’s a lost motion and you’re hitting right into the key bed. You can actually have a lot of control over loudness and your hands are taking less impact.”

If you know a song on the organ or piano, you can play it on the carillon, the sheet music is exactly the same. But you better practice it first.

“The problem with it is it’s a public in instrument,” said Sleep. “Every time you play it, it’s like a concert. We have to be sensitive to the fact that there’s a diversity of cultural and musical backgrounds. So I try to keep up on religious holidays and things so I’m not playing the wrong music at the wrong time and offending someone.”

Sleep says it takes years for someone to become an expert carillonneur. But for now his student Harnett better practice hard because after only his second lesson he gets to go up to the Carillon and play for everyone to hear.

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