ITHACA, N.Y. (WETM) – The Cornell University Chimes are a historic fixture of the campus, installed when the university opened in 1868. But the current group of students who play the bells—the chimesmasters—are keeping this tradition alive and bringing the music to a new generation.
Chenchen Lu is a senior Information Science Major, but she’s a classically trained pianist and cellist, as well. Throughout the school year and the summer, she performs multiple concerts on the eighth floor of McGraw Tower, letting anything from classical to pop to Broadway showtunes to Disney music ring out across campus.
“I just thought the chimes were cool, so I auditioned,” she explained.
The audition process is no small task. Aspiring chimesmasters must spend much of the 10-week audition teaching themselves and practicing on smaller and quieter versions of the instrument lower in the tower. Then they can practice “silently” on the actual chimes by only pressing the levers halfway.
According to the tour guide outline from Cornell, nine bells were installed when the campus first opened. Over the years, that number grew to 21, distinguishing the chimes from the similar instrument the carillon. (The carillon has 23 or more bells and is played with the fists). The outline also claims the the Cornell chimes are one of the three largest in the world, with the other 21-bell chimes in Toronto and Boston.
“I think the coolest thing about the chimes is that it’s so loud,” Lu said. “When I play, everyone around me has to listen. I just think that’s such a unique instrument and has a lot of power, and I like that.
Arranging pieces for the instrument is another beast of a task. Lu said there are several things to take into consideration when adapting a song for the chimes.
The instrument only has 21 notes, so songs must be condensed. The chimes are also missing the C# because it would take up too much room. A simple pop song might take Lu a matter of hours to arrange, but a complex classical piece written for piano and orchestra could take weeks.
The harmonics of the bells is also a consideration. “You don’t want to play too many notes at once cause it can kind of sound really muddy on this instrument”, Lu explained.
There’s also the matter of how many notes the chimesmaster is physically capable of playing at once with their two hands and left foot. Factor in duets, and the arrangements become even more complicated.
But at the end of the day, Lu said the chimesmasters do this to have fun.
Her TikTok account with videos of her concerts (playing anything from Rachmaninoff Preludes, to Nintendo 64 game soundtracks, to ABBA hits) has racked up more than four million likes and 130,000 followers. She said she and the other chimesmasters are bringing this tradition to a new generation.
“Since we’re all students, and it’s not like a very formal thing, we’re kind of just playing for campus and trying to make people smile,” Lu said. “We like our different genres of music, so we try to arrange songs that are more popular.”
Lu and the other chimesmasters perform concerts every week which are open to the public. A schedule is available on the Cornell website; each morning concert begins with “Cornell Changes”, and each afternoon concert ends with the “Cornell Alma Mater”. McGraw Tower is also home to a museum dedicated to the history of the chimes and houses the original bookshelves from when the building stored books for the next door library.