Students behind music of Crouse College chimes

By Waldy Diez (The NewsHouse) –

Nine Chimemasters play the Crouse College chimes three times a day, a Syracuse University tradition that began in the late 1800s.

Students and residents of the City of Syracuse will hear the chimes atop Crouse College tower ringing if they are within a mile of Syracuse University’s campus. These chimes, unlike the ones heard downtown, are not automated; actual students play the chimes.

Students started ringing the Crouse chimes in 1889, when John Crouse donated the first nine bells made by the Clinton H. Meneely Bell Foundry. The 10th bell was added in 1937. SU reference archivist Mary O’Brien said the original nine bells represent the first chimes in Syracuse.

Brian Savage plays one of his favorite songs, “1812 Overture” by Tchaikovsky. (c) 2015 Waldy Diez

The bells first rang in May 1889.

“The gentleman who’s company it was gave them a test run, and then they were rung on Mr. Crouse’s 87th birthday which was in June of 1889,” O’Brien said.

According to a pamphlet the Chimemasters give out to those who visit the bell tower, the first song ever played on the chimes was “Carol Sweetly Carol,” a Christmas hymn. SU celebrated the chimes’ 125th anniversary last summer by playing this song on June 3 at 6:30 p.m., the exact time of the first performance.

The first person to learn how to play the chimes was Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity member and music major, O’Brien said. The brothers of DKE took charge of ringing the bells until World War II, when the sisters of the Alpha Phi sorority took over. After returning from the war, the DKE brothers resumed their roles.

“The DKEs continued to do this for a while until they weren’t on campus anymore,” O’Brien said. “With them not being on campus anymore, what they did was open up the availability of anybody to learn how to do the chimes.”

The university suspended the DKEs in 1987 from campus for five years, though, due to a hazing incident, according to a Daily Orange article from the SU archives. At that point, a group of students, now known as the Chimemasters, approached the then dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts for permission to ring the bells again.

Becoming a Chimemaster

While anyone can join the group, current Chimemaster Brian Savage said students are generally music majors in the Setnor School of Music. There isn’t an application process; students need to receive recognition by the current group of Chimemasters.

“We will discuss new candidates and based on how good of a musician they are because we don’t want people messing up, up here,” the junior said. “Everybody will hear it.”

Also, Savage notes that Chimemasters can’t fear heights because they climb an 80-foot ladder to reach the platform and push the levers that ring the bells. Different students will ring the bells for 15 minutes, three times a day: 8 a.m., 11:45 a.m. and 6 p.m. Chimemasters ring five days a week during the academic year and have free reign to play during university breaks.

Savage said the only times students are not allowed to ring are during concerts and recitals held at Setnor Hall, music performance exams and auditions, and university exams. Students can play anything they like including — but not limited to — pop and classical music, patriotic songs and the Alma Mater.

The Thursday evening players

Savage is a dual major in cello performance and music history. He rings the chimes with fellow junior dual major Carolyn Goldstein. She also studies music history and violin performance. The pair played together Thursday nights at six during the spring semester.

“I like all the sounds the bells make,” said Savage, who has played for almost two years. “It’s not like playing a piano where you hit a key and one pitch comes out. You hit a bell and about seven pitches come out, and when you play a song, sometimes it just sounds completely alien because of all the different harmonics ringing on the bells at the same time.”

Spring was Goldstein’s first semester as a Chimemaster, and she enjoyed the alone time.

“My favorite part about ringing is how freeing it is,” Goldstein said. “You’re alone here or you’re with a fellow Chimemaster, but you don’t really comprehend how far everyone can hear your playing.

“In the moment, it’s just you and the chimes, and you can just have fun with it.”

If you ever walk around and find yourself humming along to a current pop hit, it’s because all Chimemasters must arrange new songs. Savage said this is to keep everything fresh, and there’s a wide variety of music to play.

Students can also arrange whatever they like, Savage said. The first song he ever arranged was “1812 Overture” by Tchaikovsky.

“We kind of require all of the members to arrange two songs every month so that we’ve got new music coming up here and nobody gets bored with everything we do,” he said.

As for Savage, it doesn’t seem like songs will bore him anytime soon.

“It’s really cool to ring and to have everybody hear it,” he said. “But when I’m walking around when somebody else is playing, and I’m hearing outside, it reminds me how cool it is that when I’m up here doing this, that’s what it sounds like.”

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