On Monday, April 11, McGraw Tower once again opened its doors to visitors hoping to climb its 161 stairs to attend a Cornell Chimes concert.
The tower, which has been a staple of Cornell’s central campus, has been closed to visitors since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. For the student musicians that play the bells three times a day, known as chimesmasters, the lack of an in-tower audience has been anomalous, but not a prevention to their craft.
“It’s been really odd playing without visitors,” Linda Li grad, head chimesmaster, said. “Now that we’ve opened back up, it’s been really exciting to show visitors who is behind the music.”
The Chimes program now hopes to give students, especially those graduating this semester, a chance to visit the tower.
“We have a lot of Cornellians that haven’t had the opportunity to go into the tower because it’s been closed for approximately two years,” Marisa LaFalce ’96, the Cornell Chimes program coordinator said. “We’re working with Campus Activities to provide some opportunities for seniors to climb the tower during Senior Days.”
Li described limitations placed on the Chimes program due to the pandemic, such as restrictions on the number of chimesmasters allowed in the tower at a time and the inability to play duet pieces.
Despite this, the chimes have continued to ring out across campus, which Li described as a relaxing time away from classes that also connected her to the real world when classes were all digital.
“During the time when a lot of things were canceled [due to the pandemic], Chimes was the main [extracurricular] that kept going,” Li said. “I really enjoyed being able to go to the tower and continue to play concerts. It was kind of a sense of normalcy.”
Li said that the changes to some COVID-19 restrictions and policies have made it easier for the chimesmasters to perform together, as they can playfully crash each other’s concerts and conduct holiday concerts as a group.
Several popular social media accounts have showcased the chimes to the public, even when they were not able to attend concerts in person.
Li lauded the outreach of these accounts, which include the official cornellchimes Instagram page and the “bingaleedingalee24” TikTok account, which is run by one of the newer chimesmasters, to showcase the expansive music library of the chimes and increase community engagement. Li also said they help teach people how chimes are actually played by students, and not automated.
“The chimes competition, and the chimes in general are kind of mystic to the public. Not everyone has the chance to go to the top of the tower… [some people] may not know there’s someone actually playing,” Li said.
Those hoping to ring bells themselves have an opportunity to take part in the ten-week long audition process for new chimesmasters in the spring semester.
According to Li, the chimes program made several changes to the audition process last year due to COVID-19 restrictions, such as spacing out practice times. While those are not present this year, some changes intended to make the process less stressful, like limitations on practice time and increased exercises to make the learning process easier, will stay.
“This year, a lot of our changes regarding stress and making it a much more enjoyable audition process, we’ve kept,” Li said. She noted that the chimes are a hobby, not a job, and people should enjoy it.
With the opening of concerts to the public, Li expressed concerns about visitors overwhelming the cramped space at the top of the tower, and requested concert attendees to exercise caution and avoid crowding the chimesmasters.
Morning and evening concerts are open to anyone, while midday concerts require an advance reservation.