Cornell University’s Chimesmaster brings music to online audiences

ITHACA, N.Y. (WETM) – Cornell University’s bells are a historic part of the campus, placed when the university opened in 1868. But the current group of students who play the bells – the Bell Masters – are keeping that tradition alive and bringing the music to a new generation.

Chenchen Lu is a senior information science major, but is also a classically trained pianist and cellist. Throughout the school year and in the summer, she performs numerous concerts on the eighth floor of McGraw Tower, allowing everything from classical music to pop music to Broadway shows and Disney music to be heard around campus.

“I just thought 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 training and practicing on smaller, quieter versions of the instrument lower in the tower. They can then practice “silently” on the actual chimes by pressing the levers only halfway.

According to the Cornell tour guide’s diagram, nine bells were installed when the campus first opened. Over the years, this number grew to 21, distinguishing bells from the similar carillon instrument. (The carillon has 23 or more bells and is played with the fists). The scheme also claims that Cornell’s bells are one of the three largest in the world, with the other 21 bells in Toronto and Boston.

“I think the coolest thing about bells is that they’re so loud,” Lu said. “When I play, everyone around me has to listen to me. I just think it’s such a unique instrument and it has a lot of power, and I like that.

Arranging pieces for the instrument is another task. Lou said there are several things to consider when adapting a song for the bells.

The instrument only has 21 notes, so the songs have to be shortened. Bells also lack C# because 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.

Bell harmonics are also a consideration. “You don’t want to play too many notes at once, as it can sound quite muddy on this instrument,” Lu explained.

There is also the question of how many notes the bell ringer is physically capable of playing at once with both hands and left foot. Throw in the duets and the arrangements get even more complicated.

But at the end of the day, Lou said bell ringers do it for fun.

Her TikTok account featuring videos of her concerts (playing everything from Rachmaninoff Preludes, to Nintendo 64 game soundtracks, to ABBA hits) has garnered more than four million likes and 130,000 followers. She said she and the other bell makers are passing that tradition on to a new generation.

“Since we’re all students and it’s not like a very official thing, we’re just playing for the 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.”

Lou and the other bell makers give concerts every week that 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 “Cornell Alma Mater.” The McGraw Tower is also home to a museum dedicated to the history of the bells and houses the original bookshelves from when the building housed books for the library next door.

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