ITHACA, N.Y. (VETM) – The Cornell University Chimes is a historic site on campus, installed when the university opened in 1868. But the current group of student chimes – master chimes – are keeping this tradition alive and bringing music to a new generation.
Chenchen Lu is an information science major, but she is also a classically trained pianist and cellist. During the school year and summer, she performs multiple concerts on the eighth floor of McGraw Tower, letting anything from classical to pop to Broadway shows to Disney music reverberate across campus.
“I just thought jingle bells were cool, so I auditioned,” she explained.
The audition process is no small task. Aspiring bell ringers 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 “quietly” on the actual bells by just pressing the levers halfway.
According to a Cornell tour guide outline, nine bells were installed when the campus first opened. Over the years, that number grew to 21, distinguishing chimes from the similar carillon instrument. (The carillon has 23 or more bells and is played with the fists). The blueprint also claims that the Cornell bells are one of the three largest in the world, with the other 21 bells in Toronto and Boston.
“I think the best thing about bells is that they’re so loud,” Lou said. “When I play, everyone around me has to listen.” I just think it’s such a unique instrument and has a lot of power, and I like that.
Arranging a piece for an instrument is another beast of a task. Lu said there are a few things to consider when customizing a song for ringtones.
The instrument only has 21 notes, so the songs have to be concise. Bells also lack C# as it would take up too much space. A simple pop song can take Lou a few hours to arrange, but a complex classical piece written for piano and orchestra can take weeks.
The harmonic of the bell is also taken into account. “You don’t want to play too many notes at once because it can sound really muddy on this instrument,” Lou explained.
There is also the question of how many notes the bell master is physically capable of playing at once with his two hands and left foot. Factor in duets, and the arrangements get even more complicated.
But at the end of the day, Lu said ringmasters do it for fun.
Her TikTok account featuring videos of her concerts (playing anything from Rachmaninov’s Preludes to Nintendo 64 game soundtracks to ABBA hits) has garnered more than four million likes and 130,000 followers. She said she and other bell makers are passing on this tradition to a new generation.
“Since we’re all students, and it’s not really a formal thing, we’re kind of just playing for the campus and trying to make people laugh,” Lu said. “We love our different genres of music, so we try to arrange songs that are more popular.”
Lou and other bell masters perform weekly concerts that are open to the public. The schedule is available on the Cornell website; each morning concert begins with “Cornell Changes” and each afternoon concert ends with “Cornell Alma Mater.” The McGraw Tower is also home to a museum dedicated to the history of the bell and contains original bookshelves from when the building housed books for the neighboring library.