Will Fletcher likes to be in lofty places.
As a commercial airline pilot, the Brantford man flies travellers to destinations around the world.
But, on most Sunday mornings before the COVID-19 pandemic, he could be found high in the bell tower at Grace Anglican Church playing hymns with the bells.
Fletcher recalls his first foray to the chamber beneath the bells.
“I was in Grade 10 at the time,” he says. “The door to the bell tower was open, and I could hear the bells ringing.”
Curiosity led him up the narrow circular staircase to find carillonneur Paul Waring “at the ropes, pulling the bells.”
Unlike many churches with one or more bells that rotate and chime when a directly connected rope is pulled, the Pearl Street church is different.
“Grace is the only one I know of in Ontario that has 10 bells,” says Fletcher, describing how the ropes pull hammers that strike the stationary bells.
The bells are held in place by a steel framework that rests on four large stones in the tower, which took three years to construct beginning in 1913.
“The largest bell, middle C, sits in the centre and weighs in the neighbourhood of three tons,” notes Fletcher, describing how horses ran down Church Street to hoist the bells into the tower using ropes and pulleys. “The collective weight is close to 15 tons.”
The bottom three to four feet of the 10 ropes are tied off and housed in a large wooden cabinet that features a sheet music holder, and lettering for the note behind each rope, starting at middle C and working up 10 notes to high E.
“When I was five years old my parents put me into piano, and I was at a Grade 8 level when I was 12 years old,” Fletcher says.
That musical training paid off when Waring, who was having trouble with his knees, recruited the teenager to learn the ropes to succeed him.
“I just became the Quasimodo that went up every Sunday,” the carillonneur muses. “I just carried that on.”
Fletcher ascends into the bell tower about 20 minutes prior to each Sunday service to play a selection of hymns, which at times can be challenging.
“Because I have 10 notes, there are no B-flats or F-sharps,” he explains. “I’m limited to things that are in C-major or A-minor.”
Over the years Fletcher has used his piano at home to transpose different hymns for occasions, such as Lent or Easter, so they can be played on the bells. He also helps his 11-year-old son, Matthew, with his piano studies.
Fletcher’s musical background expanded when he picked up the trombone in high school.
“I was part of the wind ensemble at North Park Collegiate, and we went to Chicago on a band trip to hear the Chicago Symphony,” he recalls. “I was exposed to the bass trombone for the first time. Hearing that, in that environment, I thought, ‘I’m going to pursue that.’”
Fletcher starting taking lessons from Brantford instructor Mark Perry, husband of Nan Perry, who taught him piano in his public school years.
He went on to study bass trombone at the University of Toronto, obtaining a degree in music performance, followed by an artist’s diploma from the Glenn Gould Professional School.
However, his career choice switched gears soon afterward, when a friend who obtained a private pilot’s licence invited Fletcher to be his first passenger. Next, a discovery flight at the Brantford municipal airport confirmed a newfound love for flying, and he signed up for the private pilot ground school course before enrolling at the Moncton Flight College in New Brunswick.
Now a first officer with Sun Wing, the 45-year-old pilot has enough flexibility in his schedule that he can continue his role as carillonneur at Grace.
“It takes a lot of energy. The ropes are heavy to pull,” he explains. “In the summertime, there are days I don’t go up because it’s like a sauna up there.”
Fletcher says that, with the construction of a high-rise condominium underway across the street, he feels compelled to play as often as possible.
He says he hopes realtors will inform prospective condo buyers about the bells.
“People will buy a home near an airport and then start complaining about the airplanes flying overhead.” he says. “This bell tower has been here for over 100 years.”
Aside from the bells ringing before Sunday morning church services, Fletcher is sometimes asked to play for weddings and other special occasions.
“The bells rang on Nov. 11, 1918, to commemorate the end of the Great War,” the carillonneur says. “On the 100th anniversary, we pulled the C-note bell 100 times, coinciding with the service at the cenotaph.”
Article via The Whig