February 24, 2010

The Chimes Heard Around the World

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A stunning 360-degree panoramic view of Ithaca and Cornell’s campus forms a majestic backdrop for the scene at the top of Cornell’s iconic McGraw Tower as Head Chimesmaster Ryan Fan ’10 bobs and weaves, giving an almost hypnotic dance-like performance while barely breaking a sweat. Though he is out of breath by the time he finishes, he smiles for a moment before he begins fielding audience questions regarding his enthralling rendition of “Colors of the Wind” on the university’s historic 21 chimes.

Although he’s the head chimesmaster now, Fan admits that his initial involvement with the chimes was somewhat fortuitous: “When I came [to an info session] I just tagged along with a friend who was going — I actually had a class at the time, but being a freshman I didn’t know where it was so I just followed my friend.” After witnessing a live chimes performance, Fan decided to stick around and audition.

Although the physicality of a chimes performance is mesmerizing for the viewer, it is uniquely demanding for the chimesmaster. Detailing the varied physical demands of the instrument, Chimesmaster Gretchen Ryan ’97 said, “The chimes … [are] like an enormous piano keyboard but you use gross motor skills instead of the fine motor skills you [would] use with a piano. Like with any other instrument you have to figure out how to hit the right note at the right time … and once you figure out how to get your limbs to the right place at the right time, you start working on stuff like dynamics.”

“My favorite analogy is that it’s like a piano crossed with Dance Dance Revolution,” Ryan added with a smile.

Although the mechanics of playing the chimes may seem akin to the mechanics of playing piano, like Ryan, Fan stressed the many differences between the two instruments: “When we play it’s not like [the] fingering on a piano; you have to do choreography. It’s about placing your limbs, not just your fingers [so] it requires balances and a soft touch. It’s not fingering, it’s choreography – that’s the big difference between chimes and piano.”

Given the differences between the piano and the chimes, Chimesmaster Lisa Passmore ’10 noted, “The learning curve [for everyone] is pretty steep for the first five or six weeks but then you taper off.”

Before compet begins, existing chimesmasters mail quartercards to freshman, dress up in a McGraw Tower costume while quartercarding in Ho Plaza and hold two information sessions, all during the end of January and the beginning of February. Potential chimesmasters use the practice room to prepare three songs, “The Alma Mater,” “The Evening Song” and “Jennie McGraw Rag,” for an initial round of auditions after the fourth week of compet. Chimesmaster Lily Xie ’10 explained: “During the first four weeks anyone [who] signs up can get access to the tower and practice in the practice room … At the end of that four weeks we have a silent audition where everyone goes up and plays silently meaning that they go up and play but they don’t push down on the levers.”

Players who pass the first round of auditions move on to playing Cornell’s real 21 chimes for the last six weeks of compet. Ryan said, “After the first four weeks you give two live concerts a week, learning how to interact with the public, how to represent the chimes and how to answer questions … After four weeks of coached concerts, there are two final weeks of judged concerts where the person competing is responsible for every aspect of the performance, opening and closing the tower, and they don’t have a coach there [because] we’re outside listening.”

The 2010 compet process is now in its third week and, according to Fan, the number of players still competing is surprisingly high: “Right now we still have around 50 [people competing]. We started with over 60, so it’s kind of crazy this year. Normally by now we would have dropped below 40 so it’s insane that we have more than 50 [potential players left].” He added, “They sound really good so far from what I’ve heard — or at least they sound really good for only the third week of the competition.”

Despite the large number of players auditioning every year, there is no set number of available spaces and, according to Fan, the number of new chimesmasters ultimately accepted has fluctuated from as few as one to as many as six. Fan added, “Although we’re graduating five seniors … we don’t really have a quota — it would be nice to fill in [the five spaces], but it’s hard to tell.”

Ultimately the new group of chimesmasters will be chosen based on which candidates are unanimously approved by the current chimesmasters. “In the last two weeks we all have to listen to all the concerts played by the compets, we all get together and have a vote,” Fan said. “We don’t have a quota; we take whoever is qualified or whoever we feel is qualified, but [the vote] has to be unanimous.”

Although, according to Fan, most of the auditioning players are freshmen according to Fan, he noted, “The competition is open to anyone in the community who can commit at least four semesters after the competition. We target freshman, sophomores, graduate students and faculty in our recruiting — it doesn’t have to be just students.”

In fact, three of the 10 currently active chimesmasters are Cornell alumni rather than current students. For instance, Ryan is currently one of the active chimesmasters, although she explained that when she originally auditioned as an undergraduate she was not accepted: “I auditioned as a student and didn’t make it. That was 12 years ago,” she said. Upon returning to the area to work in the University’s financial aid office, she decided to endure the rigor of compet again. “As a staff member I decided that I wanted to audition again because I wanted to do it … I had no particular attachment to the bells but it’s a cool instrument and it’s an important tradition at Cornell. I now see it as one of the soundtracks at Cornell [like] the waterfalls, the Hangovers, the glee club [and] the choir.” She added, “It’s also an incredible instrument for getting stress out.”

Original Author: Keri Blakinger