For well over a hundred years, McGraw Tower’s 21 bells have set the mood for an entire campus and town, performing everything from the iconic “Alma Mater” on fall evenings to elaborate renditions of the Grateful Dead.
But 161 steps above Ho Plaza, it is easy to take for granted the source of the thrice daily, boisterous melody.
According to Sonya Chyu ’19, a current member of Cornell Chimes, some students believe that the quintessential clock tower concerts are automated.
“A lot of people don’t realize that the chimes are played by actual, fellow students,” she said. “Some people think the chimes are just played by a computer.”
Not only are the chimes not automated, but earning the right to serenade a campus of almost 15,000 people is not easy. Students who are tasked with playing the chimes, called “chimesmasters,” are chosen in an annual competition that runs from February to April.
While the competition is open to all students with at least two years remaining on campus, the tryout process is designed to select the very best of Cornell’s musicians, according to Chyu.
Over the course of 10 weeks, a pool of about 40 candidates is gradually winnowed down to an elite group of only a handful. Although there are no limits or quotas, Cornell Chimes only appoints an average of two new chimesmasters a year.
The tryout process is divided into two stages. For the first four weeks, candidates play a practice instrument that allows them to learn the instrument without the whole campus listening. About six or seven compets – or candidates – advance to the next stage, where they play two concerts a week for six weeks. The latter stages can require up to 15 hours a week from participants.
At the end of the 10-week tryout process, compets are finally selected on the basis of their performance in several concerts judged by current chimesmasters. The position is a lifelong appointment and alumni of the program forever hold the right to perform when back on campus.
“Once a chimemaster, always a chimemaster,” Chyu said.
As a result, Cornell Chimes is a closely-knit group of only seven current members, bound together by a shared love for participating in one of Cornell’s oldest, most recognizable traditions.
“So many freshmen come to campus for orientation and one of the first things they are presented with is the unique sound of the clocktower,” Chyu explained. “For most of us, it’s incredibly rewarding to be a part of something that is so special to the Cornell experience.”
McGraw Tower holds three, 15-minute concerts a day — once in the morning, afternoon and early evening. By tradition, “Jenny McGraw Rag,” the “Alma Mater,” and the “Cornell Evening Song” are most commonly played, but chimesmasters are afforded relatively wide latitude in performing new repertoires.
“Most current chimesmasters were first drawn in by the uniqueness of the opportunity — no other university has a chimes program like we do,” Chyu said. “But now it’s a matter of doing it because you love it.”