BELLS OF BANFF
VIDEO BY DANIEL THOMSON
Heather Jordan, music director of St George's, rings the bells to inspire hope and as reminder that we are not alone. To learn more about Heather Jordan and the bells, check out these recent publications by RMO TODAY and the CBC, as well as an interview below.
1) Just real quick, can you tell me where you’re from in Alberta?
I grew up on a farm in Manitoba, but have lived in Banff for about 10 years.
2) Have you always loved music? When did you start to play instruments?
Yes! I've always loved music- whether I was playing, singing, or dancing to it. In some ways you could say music was my first language. I grew up in a very musical family. We were always singing together and making up dances and silly songs. I started learning to play the piano when I was about 5 years old.
3) What are some of your favourite instruments to play?
I especially love playing our little spinnet piano, my 1960's baritone ukulele, and the chime at St. George's In-the-Pines.I find that different instruments suit different moods and needs. When I have an emotion that is very deep, almost beyond words, I go to the piano. For songwriting and performing, I love the purity and accessibility of the ukulele- it seems to tap directly into my writer's brain. Words come very easily when composing on that instrument, and I can take it anywhere. The bells are in a category all their own. There is no distinction between practice and performance- every note is public. Their power and reach is so much bigger than my own. I am unseen by my listeners, and it becomes purely about the music and the moment.
4) How did you start playing the bells? I mean most of us imagine you pulling on giant ropes, ha ha, but what is it like to play the modern bells?Great question!
Honestly, I was kind of thrown into it! I have no real training in the bells. I do have a background in music though. I'm a singer-songwriter, a private music teacher, and I'm also the pianist at St. George's In-the-Pines. When I first started playing there about 5 years ago, they asked if I wouldn't mind playing the bells at weddings. That's when it all started. They just handed me some music, and I jumped right in. I'm sure I made plenty of very public mistakes at the beginning, but nobody seemed to mind.
There are no ropes for the bells at St. George's In-the Pines. In fact, the bells themselves are stationary and are often referred to as a chime. That makes it possible for many bells to be housed in a rather small belfry, and for fairly complex songs to be played by a single player. Rather than pulling on a rope, you play a sort of keyboard made of wooden levers. Each lever is attached to a wire, which triggers a clapper and hits the bell. You still have to use some force to push down each lever- the bigger the bell the heavier the clapper, and the more force you need to use. There are 11 bells in total, and the largest bell weighs over a ton. It's not quite Quasimoto swinging from rope to rope, but if you want to play at any sort of speed, it is a wonderful test of coordination, and you can certainly work up a sweat!
5) What made you start to play the bells for people during COVID-19? What songs have you played? What has the response been?
Prior to the pandemic, I really only played the bells on some Sundays and for the odd wedding. The first Sunday after social distancing measures were put in place we live-streamed our church service in an empty church, and I played the bells. So many people reached out to me to tell me how it made them feel hopeful, or less alone. It was an opportunity to do something good for my community, and I decided to play them every day at 1 pm. The bells are very loud, so you want to play them at a time when they're least likely to disturb anyone who might be sleeping.
Since I've begun, I've added so many songs to my repertoire. I always play 'O Canada,' and either 'Amazing Grace' or 'Ode to Joy.' I've played Classical music, movie themes, folk music, songs from the Beatles and Broadway, and music written by local performers. I think of the bells as the 'People's Chime', and try to keep the music engaging, with a hopeful theme. They can also be very healing. The week of the horrific shooting in Nova Scotia, I played 'Farewell to Nova Scotia' and a special set of songs in a show of solidarity to the people of Nova Scotia.
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Locally, it has become a daily ritual for many to open their windows or poke their heads out and listen to the bells. The music of the chime carries deep into the community and seems to touch people regardless of circumstance or belief. It's a way to connect us all, and help us mark our days. I've also received emails and letters from all across North America expressing the hope and joy people have derived from watching and listening to the bells. They are an incredibly powerful instrument of beauty.
6) As a music teacher, what are some lessons you’re imparting to students during these tough times?
In many ways, the lessons I hope to share remain the same.That small victories are worth celebrating.That mistakes are just opportunities for learning and laughter.That nobody is perfect.That failure doesn't diminish self-worth.It's very easy to sit in anxiety and worry about a future we can't control. Music gives us a place to put our focus, to express our emotions, to find hope, connection, and fulfillment.I have always tried to instill a sense of confidence and adventure in my students. I encourage them to look ahead in their books and follow their passion for music into new pieces and genres. For that to work, they have to have what I call 'practical confidence'. They have to slow down and evaluate what they know and do not know. They have to have faith in their ability to learn and apply themselves. And they have to feel secure in the fact that as long as they have been brave enough to sincerely try, there is no shame in failing or asking for help.
7) Anything else you’d like to mention?
The bells are Taylor Peal Bells from England. They came up the Panama Canal and were installed in 1927 in memory of the soldiers who fought and died in WWI.Also, I've recently been referred to as 'Mistress of the Chime,' and I LOVE that description. It sounds a bit medieval. I'm working on starting a 'Chime Guild' of additional players, so that the bells can continue to ring out even if I become ill, or am otherwise unable to ring them. The bells are bigger than me, and their message of hope should continue to ring out for all to hear.