or so it seemed.
My first public musical performance.
The largest instrument I ever played.
Why are these memories connected?
Stick around and I'll explain.I am sure that my mother would have liked my first musical performance for thousands of people to be one where I played the piano but I dashed all hopes of that early on when I gave up piano lessons after only six months because at 8 years old I would rather play with my friends on a Saturday morning than sit in an old lady's house learning music terminology and playing boring scales. Had the teacher just let me play music on the darned thing my life may have taken a different path but that is another story.The musical instrument, if it can be classed as such, was the church bells.
You could say I reached a lot of people with my music back then although nobody really knew that it was me.
(This was probably just as well as I had to live in this community.)
It happened like this:
The church I attended in my teens had an old member who one day had a heart attack. He didn't die but was unable to perform the duty he had been doing for as long as anyone could remember. He played the church bells.
Three of my friends and I offered to step in and keep the bells ringing.
He (I don't even remember his name) took us into the church tower and in one hour taught us how to play the church bells. There was a strict protocol we must follow. We first peeled the bells for five minutes, then played two of the hymns for five minutes and finished off peeling for five minutes finishing at the top of the hour which would signal the beginning of the church service below.
I will now have to explain how the bells were set up. There were eight bells in all. One whole octave with no sharps or flats. The bells were stationary and ropes attached to the clappers came through to the room below and were fixed in a frame about five feet wide on the wall. To play a note you simply pulled its rope which was fastened at the bottom. This meant that you didn't have to pull down but just out from the wall.
We did not realise at the time that the tightness of the rope (they were adjustable) made a difference to the loudness of the bell and these ropes were loose (loud).
The next night we practiced for almost 2 hours until we were confident we wouldn't embarrass ourselves on the coming Sunday. When I say I reached a lot of people with my music I really meant it. Every one of the 35 thousand people in our town heard the bells that evening and probably quite a few in the next town too.
We soon learned that a tighter rope was easier to control and still loud enough for all to hear. I bet you didn't realise that it was possible to adjust the loudness of some church bells.
For the hymns we were supposed to follow the simple music sheets provided and for the first few weeks we did just that but there were only about a dozen hymns and as usual my penchant for improving what was already quite acceptable made me look for more hymns to play.
I would find out what hymns would be played at the service and would jot down the music so that it would add to our repertoire and then include at least one of them that night.
It is amazing how many hymns can be played on a simple octave with no sharps and flats. Occasionally you can fudge a flat by playing its harmonic instead so we played just about every hymn in the book. With most musical instruments the audience shows its appreciation with applause but church bells are different.
We figured out how to appraise our performances by the following system.
Now the only thing I have not explained is what Remembrance Day has to do with it.
Well as time went on the bell ringers dwindled to only two and we used to have little contests to see who could peel the bells the fastest and put in the most variations. The peeling sequence had to start with the low note followed by the high note and then each of the six other notes had to be played once before the next sequence. We had both become quite proficient with hymns so I started to wonder what else we could play.
We now come to Remembrance Day 1957.
We had just seen the movie "The Dam Busters" and I thought it would be a nice idea to have the Dam Busters March playing on the church bells as the naval academy marched its members to church. Realizing that it was, after all, a Naval academy I also made up music for the Navy Hymn. I wrote the music on the bus coming home from work and we practiced on the Wednesday evening. I separated the music for the Dambusters March into two parts, one for the top four notes and one for the bottom four so that two of us could play at the same time because I knew it would be too much for one person to handle. We found if we tightened the ropes so that there was almost no give in them we could manage to play the tune fast enough that it would be marching time. Though I do say it myself it was a reasonable rendition of the Dam Busters March, harmony and all. Just before the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month we delivered our contribution to Remembrance day 1957.
I had been worried about the conflict of music as the sailors approached the church playing their small bugle band but apparently they stopped playing a quarter mile away and fell in step with the bells.
Maybe I was being a bit over ambitious playing such a thing on this rather restricted instrument but we had no complaints that day.
In our minds. - A standing ovation.
If you would like to hear a much shortened version of the music that day please use this music control.That was probably the only time that anything but a hymn was played on those bells.
I have learned to play many instruments since but never one so large and I have never played to such a large audience.
I will always have fond memories of my time as a campanologist.