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Playing the carillon is a completely mechanical operation. The carillon console, sometimes referred to as a baton keyboard, has roughly the same principle as a piano keyboard ("white" keys for the diatonic tones and "black" keys for the chromatic tones) and consists of a manual keyboard and a pedal keyboard. Because the carillon is played with the fists, the keys are farther apart. Normally the compass is four octaves. The carillon console is generally installed under the smaller bells (treble) and above the heavier bells (bass).

Schematische voorstelling, met "gerichte tuimelaar"
Schematic diagram, with "directed tumbler"

The keys, both manual and pedal, are hinged at the rear of the keyboards. The carillonneur depresses the key, either using a fist on which it is the pinky that touches the key when playing one note, or using a hand spread open for playing multiple notes.

Detail van het beiaardspel  Positie handen beiaardspel
Close-up of carillon playing

The keys are connected to the clappers of their respective bells. A wire or cable runs from each key through a system of levers called tumblers. The bell is mounted on a frame and does not move. The clapper hangs on the inside of the bell and is pulled, from the bottom, against the side of the bell. A spring is mounted to a solid surface on the other side of the clapper. After the bell is played, this spring quickly pulls the clapper back to its resting position.

Detail van de klepelverbinding.
Close-up of the clapper connection

The depth of the keyfall averages 4 to 5 cm. The force with which the key is depressed determines the volume of the sound. Even the timbre is affected depending on whether the carillonneur uses a firm or soft touch because the overtones of a bell are elicited more with a short, strong attack.
The design and measurements of the console have been subject to great variances throughout the evolution of the instrument. Currently there are two standard designs: European and North American. Primarily because American carillons usually have a larger compass, their consoles reflect a different ergonomic approach. In 2000, a new console was designed that united the compactness of the European standard with the ergonomic advantages of the American standard. It has yet to be employed with a European carillon. The carillonneur uses the manual keyboard to play melodies and the pedal keyboard to play bass notes. Sometimes, melodies can be taken by the pedals. As a rule, each key is struck only once and the resonance of the bell becomes part of the total sound. Sometimes the carillonneur uses a tremolo technique in which two or more notes are repeated quickly for a short while in order to lengthen the period of resonance. Furthermore, the tremolo affords the opportunity for dynamic variation and enhancing the ability to achieve a "legato melody."

Ana Lucia Elias
Ana Lucia Elias (Portugal) playing the carillon in the St. Rombout's tower in Mechelen, Belgium

When playing the carillon, the carillonneur accentuates certain notes, for example, on the downbeat of a measure. In this case a dynamic accent is given by striking the keys harder. Depending on the musical genre, agogic accents can also be used in which the rhythmic emphasis of notes stresses their importance in the musical line.

 

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