I Want Your Job: Roy Lee, Carillonneur
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I Want Your Job: Roy Lee, Carillonneur

U of T lets him ring their bells so the whole neighbourhood can hear.

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Photo by Jeffrey Bossin

Roy Lee is the kind of alumnus that the University of Toronto likes to brag about. Not only is he a graduate of their law program and former Yale student; he’s also responsible for one of the most collegiate sounds on campus: the Soldiers’ Tower carillon bells.

Even if you’ve never heard of the carillon, we’d bet that you’ve heard it. Often featured at weddings and graduation ceremonies, the carillon is a massive instrument containing at least 23 bronze bells connected to batons and pedals. Striking a baton at a console located just below the bell chamber rings the bell up in the tower, and striking more than one at a time produces a chord. In addition to being a Guild of Carillonneurs–certified performer, Lee, 35, has also played the piano, organ, French horn and bass guitar. (He’s also a litigator for the Department of Justice, just in case you want an even higher standard to hold your kids to.) Lee has been playing the carillon at U of T since 2001, and he’s been teaching the instrument since 2004. Despite its olden-days feel, the carillon seems to have a bright future.

Our interview with Lee―about performing Disney’s Frozen, the surprising similarities between the carillon and the courtroom, and being part of a musical tradition―is below.

Torontoist: For those people who have never heard of the carillon, how would you describe it?

Roy Lee: The carillon is a musical instrument of tuned bells, usually hung in a tower. The carillonneur plays from a keyboard that looks a bit like an organ, with batons played with fists and pedals played with feet. The bells themselves don’t move. There is a clapper inside each bell that is controlled by the batons and pedals, and when the clapper strikes the inside lip of the bell, the sound is made. It is a completely mechanical instrument, so the carillonneur can play expressively and control exactly how softly or loudly the bells will ring by striking the batons and pedals with less or more force. The University of Toronto’s Soldiers’ Tower Carillon has 51 bells, ranging in weight from four tons to 23 pounds. A broad range of music is possible on the carillon, from Baroque to contemporary, from folk songs to music more suitable for Remembrance Day. I played “Let It Go” the other day because the city was frozen!

The carillon is kind of a rare instrument; there are only about a dozen in Canada. How did you get started? What made you decide to pursue it?

Growing up, I played organ and piano, so I have a strong keyboard background. At Yale, where I did my undergrad, a student guild has been responsible for playing the carillon there since 1949. New members were recruited every fall, so I signed up for lessons during first year and have been playing ever since. When I came to U of T for law school, I was fortunate to come to a place with a carillon. I had my credentials, having just obtained my advanced carillonneur certificate from the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America, so they let me play.

There are only 11 carillons in Canada, but we have three right here in Toronto. Aside from the war memorial carillon at U of T, which was installed the same year as the Peace Tower Carillon in Ottawa, there is a carillon at the Metropolitan United Church on Queen Street. A recital is performed there before Sunday service each week, and I play there occasionally when the church’s carillonneur is away. The third, and newest Toronto carillon is at the Ex, right by the bandshell. Unfortunately it is no longer played regularly, although my students and I do go there about once a year to play for the birds. There are other smaller bell instruments, mainly at churches, but to be considered a carillon an instrument must have at least 23 bells.

Unlike a guitar or a piano, when you practice the carillon, the whole neighbourhood can hear you. How do you cope with making mistakes and learning in the public eye?

Our instrument is unique in that way. We have a practice console that looks like the carillon keyboard, but just rings little glockenspiel bars. We can learn the location of notes on the practice keyboard, but the weight of the key feels totally different, so playing a new piece for the first time on the carillon will still be a nervous experience. We may have to be ready to improvise a little bit, to simplify things when we feel we are about to lose control, and to recover from mistakes quickly and keep going. Eventually, we’re ready to perform the piece with confidence at our formal recitals in spring and summer, at graduation time, and at our annual Remembrance Day ceremony.

How does your law practice and your carillon practice intertwine? How does trying to have a work-life balance of a lawyer and a musician affect your time?

At law school, they paired the first years with alumni mentors, and I remember mine told me that keeping up with my music might eventually help me become a better litigator. You learn preparing for a recital that all that work before the big day pays off, and the same can be said about preparing for court. Also, something unexpected always happens during a performance, and you learn to stay calm and make the best of it. During my Canada Day recital one year, the cannon a block away at Queen’s Park went off while I was playing…and it boomed 20 more times for several minutes! I’ve not had to deal with cannon fire in the courtroom yet, but witnesses or judges saying something unexpected can be equally terrifying. I enjoy being both a lawyer and a musician, so I make it work. Scheduling can get pretty hectic, but fortunately the subway connects me from home to the tower to work, and some days back to the tower before home.

You also teach the carillon now. What made you decide to take on students? How has becoming a teacher shaped your relationship with the instrument?

U of T is the only university in Canada with a carillon on campus, so I felt it was important to continue growing the carillon art by taking on students. It also helps to have several people capable of performing so that the carillon can be played regularly. Soldiers’ Tower, including the carillon, was a gift from the alumni after World War I to be the university’s war memorial, and it was intended to be a tower with bells that would for all time be an audible and daily reminder of the 628 members of the university who lost their lives during the Great War. Whenever one of us plays the carillon and a passerby stops at the base of the memorial to listen, we help the university fulfill the wishes of the alumni-donors.

What’s the best part of this job?

Earlier you mentioned the public nature of our instrument. It is truly awesome to have the power to bring people together in times of celebration and commemoration, and to help foster this shared experience of the university community: to walk around campus and hear this beautiful music from the sky.

One of the neatest experiences is when I finish playing and come out of the tower, and I pass by someone humming the tune that I was just playing. To know that I have just brought joy to someone’s day definitely makes climbing all those steps worthwhile.