Mastering the Chimes

The musicians behind Cornell’s iconic sounds

The Chimes are the oldest musical tradition on campus — and one of the most frequently played set of bells in the world. Providing the heartbeat to the university since its opening ceremonies in 1868, the Chimes continue to play a prominent role in Cornell’s culture. Who are the musicians behind the iconic sounds of The Hill?

Chimesmasters play a 2017 Chimes Concert.

The audition process to become a Chimesmaster is conducted in the form of a 10-week competition, drawing students from a diverse range of academic and musical backgrounds. Broken into three parts, the first leg of the audition begins at the start of each spring semester.

While the requirements are flexible for the applications, all “compets” are required to know how to read music. According to Head Chimesmaster, Serim An ’17, while each year varies with the number of applicants, this year’s talent pool consisted of 45 students from across campus.

Looking back at what initially drew An to the Chimes competition a few years back, she remembers first hearing a concert while walking around campus:

“For me, I used to play the piano before attending Cornell, and my freshmen year I just heard the bells on campus, just walking. I just thought it was so cool that everyone gets to listen to the bells. Playing piano, you have a small audience. That’s when I first realized, I want to do that—if I’m allowed to!”

While An has a piano background, newly chosen Chimesmaster Hans Sletcha ’20 plays the cello, percussion and sings. Sletcha first heard the Chimes during a summer visit prior to his first year. For other Chimesmasters, though, like Sonya Chyu ’19, her first memory of a concert was a bit more personal.

“I studied piano for 10 years, flute for 7, and grew up in a family of musicians,” says Chyu. “As a sophomore transfer student into Cornell, I remember hearing the Chimes play one of my mom’s favorite pieces — a traditional Chinese melody my parents used to absent-mindlessly hum at home, vowing to someday visit and maybe even play the Chimes.”

The Cornell Chimes ring out the final verse of the Alma Mater during an afternoon spring concert.

In early January, Chyu, along with 44 others entered week one of the competition. During these first four weeks, the Chimesmasters in training spent their time in the McGraw Tower practice room, teaching themselves the three required Cornell songs: the Alma Mater, Cornell Evening Song, and Cornell Changes (also known as the “Jennie McGraw Rag.”)

So how do the “compets” practice without the entire campus community hearing their rehearsal tunes? The answer? Silently.

“During those four weeks they are not allowed to play out loud,” says An. “They can practice in the room or upstairs, but they only press the levers halfway down, not the whole way down. They feel the weights, but without making any sound.”

After the first four weeks, seven students were chosen to proceed to the second leg of the competition. From week five to week eight, the “compets” finally get the go-ahead and could start playing the bells out loud during regular concert times. They get assigned two current Chimesmasters as coaches, playing any song they choose during their 15 minute concerts.

“It’s exhilarating when playing out loud on the real Chimes for the first time and it was a feeling I’ll remember forever,” reflects new Chimesmaster Emma Jacob ’20.

Not only was the experience completely new for these “compets,” it also gave them a glimpse into the extensive preparation that goes behind each Chimes concert.

Chimesmasters gather at the top of McGraw Tower following the Grateful Dead specialty concert.

“The most surprising part of the process for me was how many songs the Chimesmasters have to know before every concert, says Sletcha, looking back at his experience. “Each concert tends to be about four to six songs, and Chimesmasters play about two or three concerts a week, for a total of eight to eighteen songs that they may have to prepare in the span of a week.”

During this period of the competition, the trainees quickly learned that the Chimes are just as physically demanding as they are musically.

“Being the shortest “compet” at 5’2”, I had to experiment with the ‘choreography’ of certain pieces to avoid exhausting my arms or legs while still reaching all the notes, says Chyu. “As a footnote, no pun intended, many of my audience members have commented on how much of a workout playing the chimes must be — presumably because I’m always sweating by the end of each concert!”

Chimesmasters play a 2017 Chimes Concert.

After rehearsing and hosting their very own Chimes concerts, the last two weeks of the ten week-long competition ends with solo performances during the morning and evening concerts. The current Chimesmasters gather at the base of McGraw Tower and listen for one final time. While it requires early mornings for everyone, they admit it’s a fun bonding experience.

After weeks of never ending steps up McGraw Tower and countless hours spent in rehearsal, the hard work paid off for four undergraduate students: Sonya Chyu ’19, Emma Jacob ’20, Emily Liu ’20 and Hans Sletcha ’20.

Now that the competition is over, the new Chimesmasters are already looking to expand their musical repertoire.

“The Chimes are basically everything I love and already do combined in one entity: music, exercise, and welcoming visitors,” says Chyu. “Not only has playing the Chimes been one of the best forms of stress-relief I have ever found, it has allowed me to re-discover music from my past.”

Sletcha agrees, saying he most looks forward to spending time in the McGraw Tower library digging through songs from movies, musicals and TV shows. With more time to personalize their music, the new Chimesmaster class can’t wait to make the iconic sounds of Cornell their own.

“In hindsight, playing the Chimes this semester is probably the single most significant factor in solidifying my love for, and sense of belonging at Cornell,” reflects Chyu. “In the coming two years, I hope to arrange my own music, maybe even compose an original!”

The new Chimesmasters pose in McGraw Tower: From left to right: Emily Liu ’20, Hans Sletcha ’20, and Sonya Chyu ’19. Not pictured: Emma Jacob ’20.

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