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Article updated: 8/16/2013 2:09 PM

Naperville musicians at 'leading edge' of carillon world

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For 13 years, Naperville has been home to a musical instrument found in only 650 places in the world -- the carillon.

A map showing where the bell-tower instruments are located would center on the Netherlands, where there are more than 180, and spread to other hot-spots in Belgium and France.

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If you go

What: Rockin' the Tower concert
When: 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 18
Where: Millennium Carillon at Moser Tower at the foot of Rotary Hill along the downtown Riverwalk, Naperville
What: City Carillonneur Tim Sleep plays medleys of classic rock 'n' roll tunes, alternating with a live broadcast from 95.9-FM, The River
Cost: Free
Info: www.napervilleparks.org

But a map showing the location of influential carillonneurs -- both in North America and internationally -- just might center on Naperville, where three regular performers hold prominent positions among bell tower musicians.

City Carillonneur Tim Sleep is president of the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America. Music Director and former City Carillonneur Wylie Crawford is president of the World Carillon Federation. And Assistant City Carillonneur Sue Bergren is a board member on the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America who coedits the group's newsletter and handles music for Naperville-based American Carillon Music Editions.

Sleep was chosen as the North American organization's president in June and said he is using his term to promote education about the unique instrument.

"It is critically important to us as a country and a people to continue learning," Sleep said.

In Naperville, carillon-centered learning comes in the form of introductory classes available through the park district, individual study Sleep offers as a faculty member of the North American Carillon School, and from frequent public recitals such as Sunday afternoon's "Rockin' The Tower" at 4 p.m. at the base of Rotary Hill, 443 Aurora Ave. The show will feature classic rock and metal jams played on the carillon as 95.9-FM The River broadcasts live.

"What better thing to play heavy metal on than something that has six-ton bells?" Sleep said, cracking a bit of a carillon joke.

Naperville has hosted frequent recitals on the Millennium Carillon in Moser Tower since 2000, and in that time, experts say the city has built a reputation as a welcoming and community-oriented place to play a "world-class" instrument in front of appreciative spectators.

"For a number of reasons, Naperville is really at the leading edge of the carillon world," Sleep said. "Naperville's quest for excellence makes us ripe for having a presence."

The quality of the 72-bell carillon, the relative novelty of the instrument among much older European models and Naperville's focus on making it accessible through education, tours and recitals have combined to help the city build a commanding carillon presence, Sleep said.

"To me, it's because we have a world-class instrument in a tower that's publicly accessible," Bergren said about the carillon, built by the Dutch foundry Royal Eijsbouts.

"It's their most beautiful and playable carillon," Crawford said of the company.

The Millennium Carillon's presence began when the six-octave instrument was dedicated July 4, 2000, in front of roughly 15,000 people. Sleep -- now the city's chief carillonneur -- then was looking for the next phase in his life as he was wrapping up a 34-year career as a middle school band director and principal. He got involved with fundraising for the carillon and soon figured "why not learn to play the thing?"

As an organist who has played in churches since he was 10, Sleep had an advantage in learning the carillon, with its keys called batons that must be punched with a fist and its pedals linked to clappers that strike the bells.

He and Bergren, also an organist and pianist, studied the instrument together, pushing each other to become proficient and pass certification exams on the very public instrument, where mistakes can be heard far and wide.

It was the carillon's permanence and potential as an educational tool that attracted longtime educator Sleep to learn the bells, he said.

"What caught my heart is these bells, unless something huge happens to them, they're going to last forever," he said.

Once Sleep passed the main certification exam, he joined the organization he now leads -- the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America. The guild has 483 members, including 144 who are certified. Six of those certified perform regularly in Naperville along with guests from around the world.

Many others not certified have learned carillon basics through Naperville Park District introductory classes. Along with year-round recitals featuring material as varied as a 20-minute compilation from the musical "Les MisÚrables," spooky tunes for a Halloween "SCARE-illon" show or Christmas songs after the first snow, the classes help the community connect with the carillon.

"We really wanted it to blend into the fabric of Naperville and become iconic," Sleep said. "That's why Naperville is so involved in the carillon world."

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