Cornell University’s Chimesmaster brings music to online audiences

Cornell University’s Chimesmaster brings music to online audiences

ITHACA, NY (WETM) – The Cornell University Chimes are historic campus features that were 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 has a degree in Information Science, but is also a classically trained pianist and cellist. Throughout the school year and summer, she performs several concerts on the eighth floor of McGraw Tower, performing everything from classical to pop to Broadway showtunes and Disney music throughout campus.

“I just thought the chimes were cool, so I auditioned,” she explained.

Auditioning is not an easy task. Aspiring glockenspiel masters must spend much of the 10-week audition teaching themselves and practicing on smaller and quieter versions of the instrument further down the tower. Then they can “quietly” practice on the actual carillon by only half-pressing the levers.

According to Cornell’s tour guide sketch, nine bells were installed when the campus opened. Over the years, that number grew to 21, distinguishing the carillon from the similar instrument, the carillon. (The carillon has 23 or more bells and is played with the fists). The outline also claims that 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 chime is that it’s so loud,” Lu 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 pieces for the instrument is another task. Lu said there are a few things to keep in mind when adapting a chime song.

The instrument only has 21 tones, so songs need to be compressed. The C# is also missing from the bells because it would take up too much space. Arranging a simple pop song can take hours, but a complex classical piece written for piano and orchestra can take weeks.

The overtones of the bells also have to be considered. “You shouldn’t play too many notes at once because it can sound pretty muddy on this instrument,” Lu explained.

It is also about how many notes the glockenspiel master is physically able to play simultaneously 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 the carillon masters do this to have fun.

Her TikTok account with videos of her concerts (where she plays everything from Rachmaninoff Preludes to Nintendo 64 game soundtracks to ABBA hits) has amassed more than four million likes and 130,000 followers. She said she and the other carillon masters would bring this tradition to a new generation.

“Since we’re all students and it’s not a very formal thing, we just play for the campus and try 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 carillon masters give public concerts every week. A schedule is available on the Cornell website; Each morning concert begins with “Cornell Changes” and each afternoon concert ends with “Cornell Alma Mater”. McGraw Tower also houses a museum dedicated to the history of the carillon and houses the original bookshelves from when the building housed books for the library next door.

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