Even before she applied to Cornell, Chenchen Lu ’23 was drawn to the Cornell Chimes by the large scale of the instrument, which commands the entire Ithaca campus as its audience.
Now a chimesmaster, Lu has greatly expanded that audience by bringing her performances on the chimes to TikTok, amassing a following of more than 140,000 in the last year.
“I didn’t expect so many people to be interested in bells or this kind of music,” Lu said. “It’s been rewarding just to see so many people genuinely curious about the instrument and this raw, kind of weird sound quality that I’ve grown to love. It’s also brought more recognition to the instrument and to Cornell.”
The Cornell Chimes consist of 21 bells that sit 173 feet above central campus in McGraw Tower. They mark time for the university, ringing each quarter hour and regaling campus with three concerts per day during the school year. The concerts are played by chimesmasters, often students, who submit to a rigorous, 10-week application process that opens each spring. Playing the chimes requires physical stamina and is impressive to watch – chimesmasters push the heavy levers with hands and one foot while standing on the other.
Lu began posting chimes videos on TikTok in June 2021 and went viral for the first time in July of that year, with a movie theme song that now has 1.4 million views. The number of followers on Lu’s account then grew exponentially.
The success prompted her to continue posting new songs, while answering questions about the chimes in the comments and taking requests. She’s played everything from classical favorites, like Felix Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” (2.6 million views), to movie and show theme songs to classic and current rock and pop music, with 4.5 million likes on her posts so far. She’s also created content answering frequently asked questions about the chimes, chronicled a day in the life of a chimesmaster, and documented trips to other bell towers.
Lu said posting to TikTok motivates her to play more and improve her skills. “I really just like playing,” she said. “We have a library with thousands of songs, and I like to challenge myself with songs that are more difficult and to try to learn songs that people really like.”
The most gratifying interactions Lu has had on TikTok are with people who comment that her playing has inspired them to pick up or return to an instrument, or one woman who posted a video saying she’d spent all day listening to and enjoying Lu’s songs.
An information science major in the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science, Lu has also found connections between the chimes and her academic life. She applied her coursework and interest in user experience design to redesign Cornell Chimes’ database of song arrangements, providing more functionality for different types of users – applicants or “compets,” librarians, chimesmasters and head chimesmasters.
“All of these people have slightly different needs, and I wanted to make sure we had a database that not only looked more modern but could accommodate these different functionalities,” Lu said.
The new database will also make collaboration easier – currently the process for adding a new song to the library requires the chimesmasters to add new arrangements to a binder, where others can practice it, comment on it, and vote on whether to add it to the library. With Lu’s database, the chimesmasters will be able to propose a song and read comments online, without needing to be in McGraw Tower. Alumni chimesmasters are helping to build the database from Lu’s design and hope to provide a demonstration at their annual Chimes Advisory Council in September.
While a future in the technology sector awaits, Lu said it will be difficult to give up the bells, which have defined and shaped her experience of Cornell, even before she arrived on campus. A piano and cello player all her life, Lu applied to Cornell in part because of the chimes.
“I just thought it was super unique, and I liked that it was very loud, that it forces people to listen,” she said. “I think about bells a lot now in my everyday life. Even when I listen to songs casually, I think, ‘Could this be arranged into a chimes song?’ I’ve also made really good friends through this program. We share this very niche interest that only we can talk about, so it’s very bonding. And playing music together is always super fun.”