If you think that the beautiful melodies coming from the Peace Tower’s bells are computer-generated, you couldn’t be more wrong. Rather, the lovely music is the result of Dr. Andrea McCrady’s skill as she plays the tower’s carillon; an instrument comprised of 53 bells, including the largest ‘bourdon’ bell, which weighs 10 metric tonnes.
“It’s a heavy beast,” McCrady said in an interview with Ottawa Tourism. “But because I’ve been playing it for eight years, I kind of know what I can do with it.” McCrady noted that the carillon she plays on today is the original Peace Tower Carillon, which was inaugurated on July 1, 1927. According to the House of Commons’ website, the now well-known carillon was installed “to commemorate the Armistice of 1918 and the sacrifice made by Canada during the First World War.” This carillon is one of 11 in Canada, the website said. At the time of its inauguration, Prime Minister William Lyon MacKenzie King deemed it to be the “Voice of the Nation.”
McCrady told Ottawa Tourism that what drew her towards the carillon was its sound. She said that she first discovered the carillon as an undergraduate student as her college had a bell tower with a carillon.
“Really, it was the sound of the bells that captured me,” she said, adding that as she already knew how to play the piano, she thought she could learn to play the carillon. “I used to say that I caught bell fever,” McCrady said. She noted that those who witness the carillon being played are impressed, but there are a few people who catch “bell fever” and really want to learn how to play. “That’s the way I was,” she said.
Similar to a piano, a carillon has two rows of keys as well as a row of pedals, and each one is connected to a single bell. To play the large instrument, McCrady actually wears dancing shoes to be able to better control the pedals. “I dance on the bells,” she said with a laugh.
One of the challenging aspects of the job of Dominion Carillonneur, McCrady said, is that people tend to think the music is created by a computer. “Everybody thinks that it’s a computer until you make a noticeable mistake,” she said. She added that the carillon audience in Ottawa is also “transient” and “diverse,” as many people come and go on Parliament Hill. McCrady noted that it’s rewarding when she can get people to stop for a while and listen to a few songs they recognize.
She also noted that many people ask if she takes requests. “I’m open to suggestions,” McCrady said. “I want to know what the audience wants to hear.” She said however that it can be difficult to adapt popular music to the 1927 carillon. But in the past, McCrady said she’s played the Imperial March from Star Wars and The Fox (What Does The Fox Say?) by Ylvis. She also added that she always checks a song’s lyrics to make sure that it’s an appropriate song to come out of the Peace Tower. “I’m very careful about lyrics, and getting the right melodies and adapting them so they’re recognisable. That’s the key,” McCrady said. She added however that her favourite music to play are pieces that are specifically composed for the carillon. “It understands the instrument best and gives it its best voice.”
She said in the interview that one of the most powerful moments she played the carillon on Parliament Hill was for Jack Layton’s funeral cortege. In August 2011, the Canadian New Democratic Party leader and Leader of the Opposition passed away from cancer. “I had very little time to prepare the music and no chance to practice it because the bells were silent for a couple of days,” McCrady said. “But that was probably the most powerful moment.”
She added that one of the “most enjoyable” moments happened about a year ago when she got to teach TV personality Rick Mercer how to play the carillon for the Rick Mercer Report. The two played K’NAAN’s Wavin’ Flag.
McCrady told Ottawa Tourism that what she likes about Ottawa is the city’s smaller size and the diversity of activities it offers. “[Ottawa] doesn’t have all of the traffic woes that Montreal and Toronto would and yet, it has everything,” she said. “It has a huge diversity with all of the embassies, the music festivals, the National Arts Centre and the National Gallery. It’s just great.”
And in terms of her favourite place in Ottawa? Well, McCrady said that Parliament Hill is pretty tough to beat. “The Peace Tower is a heck of a place to work,” she said. “I’ve got the highest office on Parliament Hill.” McCrady noted that the carillon is located at two thirds of the way up the tower, which stands at 92.2 metres tall. She added however that she likes to explore Ottawa’s different neighbourhoods and of course, skating on the frozen Rideau Canal in the winter. “I love to skate too,” she said.
Want to hear Dr. Andrea McCrady in action? Just head to Parliament Hill. McCrady plays from 11:00 a.m. to noon each weekday. The concert always begins with O Canada!