January 31, 2002

Chimesmasters Begin Training

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The Cornell Chimes annual ten-week competition for new Chimesmasters began early this week with two information sessions at the top of McGraw Tower. The competition process for future Chimesmasters begins this coming Monday.

In order to train as a Chimesmaster in the “compet process,” one must be able to read music and have the physical prowess to climb 161 steps. No prior chimes playing is required.

Current applicants are expected to be either freshmen or sophomores, or faculty, staff or graduate students, as the current Cornell Chimes staff would like to retain Chimemasters for as long as possible, according to Chimesmaster Melody Hung ’03.

Nine Chimesmasters occupy the staff at any given time, reaching the Cornell community’s ears with three concerts daily during the academic year.

“We generally recruit approximately forty trainees each spring. However, there is no limit to how many chimesmasters we accept each year. The average has traditionally been about two per year,” Hung said.

Marisa F. Piliero, Cornell Chimes project coordinator in the Student and Academic Services office, pointed out that some people stop training because they realize the large time commitment needed to gain proficiency with the chimes.

“The ultimate decision of choosing a chimesmaster is based solely on performance,” Chimesmaster Alan Erickson ’03 said. “There is a certain level of skill we expect and that is how our decision is made. So in that regard it isn’t really a competition against other people since only the individual’s performance matters.”

The first round of training lasts four weeks as compets learn to play the chimes on both the third floor practice stand and silently on the main console, the “clavier,” by pushing the levers down half way.

According to Hung, this allows compets to feel the weight of the clappers on the real bells without actually ringing them. In the third floor practice room, the stand is identical to the actual playing clavier but relies on xylophone bells instead of large bells that the whole campus can hear.

Compets must play the “Jennie McGraw Rag” from memory, the Cornell alma mater and the “Cornell Evening Song” as well as sight-read a short, simple piece during silent auditions. The “Jennie McGraw Rag” is the first song played every morning in honor of the donor of Cornell’s original nine bells, Hung said.

The Second Round, which lasts six weeks, consists of coached concerts that are limited to those who make it through the silent audition.

“The last component of the second round, which lasts two weeks, asks compets to take on the responsibilities of a Chimesmaster. They play concerts while current Chimesmasters judge from the ground. In late April, a decision is made and compets are notified,” Piliero said.

Originally in the late 1800s, one student was selected by the president to be the Chimesmaster and when he or she graduated, a friend was chosen without a required demonstration of skill.

“It is safe to say that the quality went downhill from there. As a result, competition began after 1900 and it is very similar today to the way that it was fifty years ago,” Piliero added.

To play the Cornell Chimes, the Chimesmaster uses his or her hands and feet to push levers and pedals, which are connected by cables to the bells’ clappers.

The lower notes on the clavier have bigger clappers and are therefore much heavier. As one moves up the scale, the pulling effect becomes significantly lighter.

“The big hour bells weigh some 5,000 lbs, with big heavy clappers. Learning to master the dynamics when playing these bells is the challenge,” Piliero said.

According to Hung, music is selected from a collection of over 2,000 pieces arranged by current and past chimesmasters, who decide on the selection of songs to be played at each concert during the day.

Additionally, requests are taken by concert visitors.

“We do have a rule in place. We’re not allowed to repeat pieces that have been played in the last three weeks except when requested by visitors,” Erickson said. “Naturally, some pieces get requested more often. ‘Here Comes the Sun’ has often been requested multiple days in a row. Of course, Chimesmasters also have their “favorites” which are played more often.”

“It’s an amazing experience. You really need to like it. It is definitely a big time commitment. We all make mistakes, once in awhile,” Ngan said.

Overall, chimesmasters said that although it is possible to learn the chimes during the first ten weeks, it generally takes longer to perfect the craft.

“It is a physically demanding instrument. Actual difficulty depends on how long one has played. I don’t find it very difficult but a new Chimesmaster would,” Erickson said.

Hung said her sore hands and feet have been worth the amount of satisfaction she continues to receive after completing a successful concert.

“It’s kind of difficult when you’re learning at first. The hardest part of chimes playing is probably incorporating your foot into it all. Chimesmasters often have to stand on one foot — usually the right foot — and do random things with their left foot,” she said.

Hung added, “Given the fact that the tower is a central symbol for Cornell, the entire community recognizes it and listens to its notes each day. Some people might think we are crazy to be playing chimes at 7:45 a.m. on weekday mornings but it’s all part of the Cornell experience.”

Archived article by Chris Westgate