Playing the bells

Kunal Marwaha

# What is a carillon?
# Playing tips
# Books and Practice
# Health
# Music
# My experience in Berkeley
# Quotes from Wylie

# What is a carillon?

If you hear many bells in a bell tower, and you’re not in England, you probably are listening to a carillon or carillon recording.

I learned to play in 2012 when I was a student at UC Berkeley. Read more here about the carillon and its history.

Here are two short videos about the carillon.

# Playing tips

It’s become very easy for me to critique and give feedback. The longer I’ve been playing, the more people trust my opinions. HOWEVER, the farther you get from first learning something THE HARDER IT CAN BE TO GIVE FEEDBACK. Recent learners are closer to their own early mistakes. Also, remember that lots of advice can be better than bad advice from purported “masters”. Fortunately, I am no carillon “master” — here are some of my tips playing the heaviest instrument in the world:

  1. Be bold! Take pride in your decisions, mistakes, and successes. You are the musician. There is no “right” way to play.
  2. Watch other people teach. Master classes can give you an opportunity to watch someone teach carillon. It’s even better when there are multiple instructors who disagree and discuss!
  3. Sing the important line as you play! It sounds silly in the playing cabin, but no one will hear you on the ground.
  4. Put your hands over your ears (or stick your fingers in) to see what the bells sound like. You’ll hear a different sound, with more mixing and less “sharpness” that’s only present in the playing cabin.

# Books and Practice

There are a few books on the carillon that have been recommended to me:

Milford Myhre and Andrea McCrady have a “diabolical exercise” to practice note preparation. Play a single melody. If you’re playing a quarter note, after an eighth note you should be prepared for the next note, even if it is many measures later! Make it harder by playing more voices.

# Health

Wrist: carillon players (including me) develop wrist pain, especially De Quervain’s syndrome because of the motion of playing the bells. Jeff Davis recommends the ACE Neoprene wrist brace (True Beauty, 207220) when practicing. Make sure you take breaks!

Ears: Make sure to protect your ears! Wear earplugs when practicing and get your hearing checked regularly.

# Music

I am especially fond of Ronald Barnes’ music.

Here are some pieces that have been recommended to me:

# My experience in Berkeley

My interest in carillon was mostly by chance. I visited the tower on a campus visit and watched someone unlock the stairwell. I asked the person at the front desk, “Who gets to do that?” They told me about the carillon and the lessons available for UC Berkeley students. I am very curious about unusual activities. I applied to take lessons my freshman year. The interviewer (and my eventual teacher) Jeff Davis talked to me about electronic carillons and asked me to play an instrument. He accepted me and I began lessons that lasted all through college.

I loved the experience of playing music for the whole campus. The weekly 6pm recitals often gave me a birds-eye view of Bay Area sunsets before or after my recital. There are many technical challenges with the carillon keyboard: it is hard to truly practice without fumbling a bit on the real instrument. (With time, one learns how to “estimate” the differences between a practice keyboard and the real one.) It also produces a unique and strange sound; especially unfamiliar to my classically-trained ears. I was introduced to Ronald Barnes’ music (Jeff knew Ron very well) and appreciated his clever arrangements of Euroclassical melodies to sound pleasant on an instrument with an odd overtone series. Some music for carillon use other scales entirely; I especially liked Gary White’s Etude.

I am especially grateful for the thriving student community at UC Berkeley. Although most of us had individual lessons, we could come together in the practice area on the 1st floor of Sather Tower. Each semester, we taught a self-designed class to other students about playing the carillon. We swapped playing tips and arrangements and even traveled to some carillon conferences together. I made friends that will last a lifetime.

# Quotes from Wylie

Wylie Crawford is a longtime carillonist and president of the World Carillon Federation. He also has a great sense of humor. Here are some of my favorite quotes from him when we attended the Price Symposium in 2018.


People who play the carillon form a wacky, wonderful group of introverts. The sound is more recognizable than the person; it’s less like Rapunzel, more like Quasimodo.