Why Being a Student Chimesmaster Put Me ‘At the Top of the World’

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By D. Dina Friedman ’79, BA ’78

On the opening day of the Chimes competition, more than 40 of us crowded into McGraw Tower to watch Rick, a skinny redhead, demonstrate flinging his arms and legs in all directions as he stomped on the wooden levers that rang the bells.

The sound, punctuated by the clicks of wood against wood, was harsh and filled with overtones, denting the integrity of his renditions of Bach, the Beatles, and Scott Joplin.

But it looked so cool!

To be a chimesmaster, Rick explained, we first had to memorize and master the “Jennie McGraw Rag,” the “Alma Mater,” and the “Evening Song” by practicing—putting our hands and feet on the levers without pushing them all the way down in order not to subject the entire campus to our mistakes.

Dina Friedman

(Decades later, in 1999, a separate practice stand not connected to the Chimes would be installed a few levels down.)

In a month we’d be tested on our silent playing, and those who passed could progress to live concerts.

“Most of you will drop out,” Rick said. “By the time we get to the end of the first phase of the competition, I’m guessing there’ll be five of you left.”

I shimmied my way through the throng to sign up for practice times, determined to be one of the five.

For the next few weeks, I spent hours hunkered down in the tower, trying to learn the 549 notes that comprise the “Rag” and play them at lightning speed. I was thankful that my good ear enabled me to make a sound-print of the notes in my head as I silently pushed the levers.

I spent hours hunkered down in the tower, trying to learn the 549 notes that comprise the 'Rag' and play them at lightning speed.

The harder part was staying balanced—and upright—as I reached for the low notes with my left foot, then scurried to the other side of the keyboard for a hand-over-hand run of high notes.

I practiced nearly every day. I loved the solitude of the tower, loved reading the new graffiti as I climbed the six flights of stairs—hearts with lovers’ initials, snide comments about the next organic chemistry prelim.

When I was done, I’d climb the final flight of winding stairs for the view. As I watched students trudging up the hill from West Campus, or gazed north to the gothic towers of Risley Hall and the legendary kissing spot on the Suspension Bridge, I’d silently reaffirm my resolve.

Yes. I could become a chimesmaster!

By the time we were tested, there were eight people left. Rick watched my hands and feet as I mimed through the “Rag.” He looked satisfied, if not particularly impressed.

“OK, you passed,” he said.

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Dina Friedman playing the chimes as a student
As an undergrad, making beautiful Big Red music.

Five of us made it to the next phase, which was to learn two difficult pieces in the Chimes repertoire and prepare two concerts each week for six weeks. We’d be judged on the last four concerts.

I don’t remember what I’d been doing the night before my first live morning concert, but if it had been like any other night during my freshman year, I doubt I’d gone to bed early and gotten a good night’s sleep. It was dark and cold when the alarm rang, and then rang again after I hit the snooze button.

I threw on some clothes and walked from North Campus in the chilly rain, but I didn’t fully wake up until I tried to play the “Rag” for real. This was entirely different than practicing silently. In order to make a sound, I had to push much harder on the levers than I’d expected.

I made a million mistakes, but likely no one else on campus was awake enough to notice. I tried to make up for my lapses by playing my heart out for everything else—sappy songs from musicals and a bit of easy Bach. As I played, I felt exhilarated, literally and figuratively at the top of the world.

I made a million mistakes, but likely no one else on campus was awake enough to notice.

There were only three of us left when we got to the final two weeks of the competition. By then, I was smitten. I poured my emotions into each press of the lever, letting the music surge through, even though I still made lots of mistakes. I guess it worked. They accepted all three of us!

One of my recent winter-survival strategies has been to cultivate what I call “the wow moments.” Every day as I walk in the woods, I see small snapshots of wonder.

“Wow!” I say out loud to the contrast of deep blue sky pierced by a green canopy of tall pines.

“Wow!” I say again to the water rushing under a patina of ice.

“Wow!” to the slithery feeling of my soles slipping on the ice and the adrenaline thrill of righting myself.

That was how I felt being a chimesmaster—just me, righting myself: sounding out all over campus. Mattering.


D. Dina Friedman (known on the Hill as Debbie) is the author of several works of poetry and fiction, including the short-story collection Immigrants and the award-winning Holocaust-themed YA novel Escaping Into the Night. This essay is excerpted from her not-yet-published memoir, Imperfect Pitch.

All images provided.

Published January 22, 2024


  1. Sharon Hoopes Piers, Class of 1970

    Love this story! The chimesmaster played our wedding recessional above the campus as we left Anabel Taylor Chapel after the ceremony in December, 1969. It was breathtaking!

  2. Anne Powell, Class of 1966

    The older of my two brothers, Gardiner Powell, was a chimesmaster in the early 1950s. He still regards the whole experience as one of the highlights of his Cornell years. As an Ithaca resident, he played Christmas music during the Christmas break since the other chimesmasters were not on campus. My other brother and I have many great memories of climbing up to watch him play. (My family was grateful when Gard was allowed to play a memorial concert for our father, Whiton Powell (1924) in 1980.)

  3. Diane Gahres.

    This is Fabulous. I was climbing those stairs with you and shivering in the cold. It speaks on all 3 levels; Physical, Emotionally and Spiritally. To me, it’s Heroic; a Personal Commitment to Strive for Excellence! I am also grateful for the “Wow” moment suggestion. I am going to use that Right Now! I do adhere to “Present Moment ” philosophy. I will add “Wow” to my toolbelt. Great, Heartfelt Writing. Thank you.

  4. Mary Grainger, Class of 1979

    “Debbie”, Thanks for sharing your story! If you can make it to Reunion in June, maybe you could play again.

  5. Lisa Barnes MacBain

    I am SO impressed! All of that practice and as a freshman, no less! I loved this story and my fellow grad husband and I talked it through in detail over breakfast.

  6. Marge Seibel, Class of 1979

    Way to go Debbie. I remember playing the chimes with you. I don’t think I could describe it so eloquently.

    • D Dina Friedman (Debbie), Class of 1979

      Hello Marge! So great to hear from you! I have such great memories of our days of playing duets together, even with the occasional mess-ups!

  7. Sarah Jensen, Class of 1995

    Love this story! The chimes music was such a wonderful part of my Cornell memories. Somehow I never made it up the tower for the tour, so it was great to hear your experience playing up there. Amazing that you did this as a freshman, too!

  8. Richard Glassco, Class of 1976

    I am the “skinny redhead” featured in your story, described as “flinging his arms and legs in all directions”[!] I was head chimesmaster that year (1975).Being a Cornell chimesmaster was one of my most exciting and satisfying experiences at Cornell, putting me literally higher above Cayuga’s waters than any other place in Ithaca.

    I arranged over two dozen pieces for the eighteen-note range of the chimes, many of which are played to this day.

    Early on one foggy Sunday morning, I stood alone atop the tower, and across the Arts Quad I heard the sound of bagpipes. I thought, “Wow, it takes some nerve to play an instrument so loud you can hear it across the quad.” Then I hit my forehead “Duh, here I am playing an instrument so loud you can hear it clear across campus and downtown Ithaca!”

    My fondest memories of Cornell include climbing those 165 steps, ringing the chimes or being deafened directly under them, and looking out from the tower over the Cornell campus, the city of Ithaca, and Cayuga Lake.

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