Photo by Nicholas Carter

Naoko Tsujita provides a rare glimpse into the world of the carillon – the bronze bells in Soldiers’ Tower tuned to be sounded together, harmoniously, on a keyboard. These bells infuse the U of T graduation ceremony with meaning and majesty.

Convocation at the University of Toronto is arguably the pinnacle of the student experience. Graduation is earned; one of life’s milestones is achieved. A key component of this unforgettable experience is music, the bells (carillon) of Soldiers’ Tower.

The winding staircase leading to the bells.

There are only 12 carillons in Canada, so the instrument in Soldiers’ Tower is a real gem for U of T. It has 51 bells ranging in weight from four tons to 23 pounds. Dedicated on October 6, 1927, the initial 23 bells honoured members of the University who fell in the First World War. More bells were added in 1952 and 1976 in memory of those who fell in the Second World War.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Soldiers’ Tower, making the music of spring convocation even more meaningful.

Although the Tower is not officially part of Hart House, it is closely associated with it. The House works diligently with the Soldiers’ Tower Committee to bolster this relationship. The carillon program is administered by the Department of Alumni Relations and the President’s Office, which oversees convocation recitals in June and November.

Naoko Tsujita

So, who’s behind the lovely music? U of T has three certified players called carillonneurs (or carillonists): Roy Lee, Elisa Tersigni and Naoko Tsujita. Naoko, a U of T alumna, is an experienced percussion instructor, skilled in music performance, education and composition. She earned her master’s degree in music performance from the Faculty of Music.  

Naoko comes from a very musical family. Her parents are both musicians. Her father, a teacher, led the school band. Her mother taught piano. Her siblings are also musicians. “It was natural for me to start playing instruments,” Naoko says.

After graduating in music performance (percussion), she became interested in carillons. An organ-playing friend showed her one of the oldest in Canada, located in Toronto’s Metropolitan United Church. She went to this church to meet the carillonneur, Roy Lee, and soon after became Lee’s student, taking private lessons while she was completing her master’s degree (2017).

She was enthralled with the carillon from the start. “I just love playing,” she explains. She earned her certificate from the North American Carillon School during the pandemic, a time that was extremely challenging for musicians since venues were closed for lengthy periods of time. In a way, Covid helped her to focus on learning the new instrument, arranging music for it, and learning how to promote and market music.  

Convocation Music: Standard Repertoire Plus More Energetic Pieces

Naoko plays the bells during U of T’s convocations, leaning on standard repertoire. “There are so many convocations that I basically have to play everything I learned!”

Each convocation features a one-hour concert, the graduation ceremony being set in the middle of the performance. “Classical music is popular in the carillon repertoire, especially at the beginning of convocation. There are also so many compositions written for carillon, which are nice to play. Then after the graduation ceremony, I usually play vivid and energetic pieces.”

Informal ‘Rings’ Range from Beatles to Anime Music

The phrase informal ‘rings’ refers to more casual practice sessions on non-convocation days. “I arrange music and test it during this time,” Naoko explains, adding, “I have to try out my arrangements, otherwise I don't really know how they sound!”

Many will be surprised to learn that there are actually two instruments in Soldiers’ Tower – the practice instrument (somewhat like a xylophone and not audible outside) and the actual instrument with the larger bells, which is audible outside. “The weight and feel of the keyboards are completely different, comparing these two instruments. That's another reason why I appreciate the informal practice sessions,” Naoko says.

Informal ‘rings’ can be fun for both listener and musician. If anyone happens to be strolling by, they may hear Naoko playing anime works, Beatles pieces or Japanese folk songs. She was once asked to arrange folk songs from seven countries, which she loved.

Left: The keyboard portion of the main instrument. Right: Sheet music on the practice instrument.

The Importance of Public Music

Naoko reflects on the significance of this music. “It’s very nice to have bells on campus. As carillonneur, the most important part is to let the music speak out. It’s so public. Everybody can hear.”

The huge bells of Soldiers’ Tower carillon. One weighs four tons.

It may be public, but unlike almost all other instruments, no one listening to the beautiful music can see the musician behind the sound. “Not many people know there’s actually a human being playing the bells,” Naoko jokes. “They think the music is pre-recorded or automatic.”

Nevertheless, this public music means all kinds of different things to different listeners – passersby, students, graduates, family members, etc. After one performance, Naoko met a woman who was deeply affected by the music. “This lady came up to me and started crying because she had lost her father the day before. She was walking around the area, almost by accident, when she heard the bells. So that was a very meaningful moment for her.”

Playing the Bells Gives Naoko a Sense of History

Working as a carillonneur makes Naoko feel deeply connected to Hart House, Soldiers’ Tower and U of T. “Being in this Tower gives me the feeling that I’m actually a part of the history. That’s special, as is working with members of the Soldiers’ Tower Committee. They know a lot of the history. When we talk about it, I feel as though I am becoming a part of the history and carrying this history to the next generations,” she explains.

Thinking of adding bells to your celebration at Hart House?

The carillonneurs of Soldiers’ Tower can also play for private events, such as weddings at the House. Occasionally, the carillonneur collaborates with the Hart House Singers for a one-of-a-kind event.

Learn more about The Soldier's Tower.

Information about the informal recitals is first posted on the group’s Facebook site. To receive email notices of upcoming formal recitals, contact [email protected]