January 27, 2009

The Bell Tolls for New Chimesmasters

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Cornell students’ ears have become accustomed to hearing the multitude of songs that rings out from the bells of McGraw Tower throughout the day. Soon, the people who perform those songs will be replaced by a new generation of chimesmasters as the Cornell chimes program begins its 10-week audition process this week.
“There is a significant learning curve when playing the chimes,” Head Chimesmaster Wayne Kim ’09 stated in an e-mail. “To reflect this, our competition is a 10-week long process where ‘compets’ are expected to devote a significant amount of time towards practicing.”
The tradition of the Cornell chimes is rooted in the University’s history. Nine bells originally played at the University’s opening ceremony on Oct. 7, 1868. Those bells were eventually recast and expanded to a cadre of 21. As the instrument grew, so did the chimes program. McGraw Tower is now home to the chimes office, museum and practice home.
There are traditionally about 10 chimesmasters, and the only prerequisites to audition are the ability to read music and the physical fitness to traverse the 161 steps in McGraw Tower. Despite these seemingly mild expectations, the audition process is intense.
“We primarily focus on the musical abilities of the chimesmasters,” Kim said. “However, we do consider things like how they deal with an audience and crowds.”
The tryout process is primarily self-taught, and prospective chimes players hone their skills in the practice room during scheduled practice hours.
“You don’t compete against each other, you compete against the instrument,” said Katie Hamren ’11, a chimesmater who also plays the trumpet. “There’s no one there really teaching you. People get weeded out as you go along.”
Though many musicians may not master the chimes during the audition process, their appreciation for the instrument grows as the weeks wear on, according to Lisa Ruth Passmore ’10.
“I remember joking about trying out with a friend beforehand,” Passmore stated in an e-mail. “It was really in the first few weeks of competition that I was drawn to the instrument.”
Once selected, the group plays an average of three concerts a day. Each of these concerts last 15 minutes, with music selections ranging from modern, radio hits to classic, Cornell spirit songs. The only songs that appear daily are “Cornell Changes” in the morning, the “Alma Mater” at the midday concert and the “Cornell Evening Song” as the last piece of the day. Besides these three mainstays, the chimesmasters have a certain degree of creative control.
“We have well over 2,000 pieces of music in our music library, and it is up to each Chimesmaster to program his or her own concert,” said Kim. “We cannot play a certain piece if it has been played in the last three weeks, unless it is requested by an audience member.”
Each individual chimesmaster will typically play three concerts a week, including lengthened concerts held for holidays and weddings.
Current chimesmasters serve as guides to “compets” during the audition process.
“Chimesmasters serve as coaches for the ‘compets’ in the last six weeks of competition,” Passmore said. “We’re there to listen to the concerts, highlight the good things and the areas that need improvement and serve as a guide for what to do next. In the final two weeks of judging the concerts played out loud, we listen to the concerts and discuss them as a group.”
Despite the rigorous expectations for chimesmasters, members report that the experience is as memorable as it is demanding.
“The chimesmaster position is my strongest personal connection to the campus and its history,” Passmore said. “From the alumni I’ve spoken to, I gather that it isn’t really something you notice much during your years here, but when you come back to the campus, you realize it’s one of the few things that never really changes.”