In the lobby of Crouse College at Syracuse University stands a short, curly-haired boy talking to a group of friends. He occasionally glances at his watch, as if he’s anxiously awaiting someone’s arrival. At 11:30 a.m. he politely excuses himself and swiftly moves toward the elevator. He gets off on the third floor and walks to the end of a hallway, then into a vacant practice room. In the back corner there’s an old, wooden door.
Alex Ganes is one of the very few students at Syracuse University with keys to this door, as he is a member of the elite group of chimesmasters—the people who play the songs that ring out from the Crouse bell tower. As Ganes makes his way into the practice room, he mentally prepares the day’s songs in his head.
Off of the room there is a large rotunda used for storage. Inside, the names of hundreds of former chimesmasters are written on the walls, representing the previous members of the elite society. In the middle of the room there’s a ladder that leads to a hatch in the ceiling.
Above the room is a small platform where the chimes are played. The bells are controlled by a series of cables and pulleys that the chimesmaster controls with a set of levers. Ganes takes a minute to check the cables before he begins to play at 11:45 a.m.
Ganes plays for fifteen minutes each shift, and is allowed to choose whichever pieces he’d like. The only rules are that they must play “Westminster Chimes,” as well as the Syracuse University alma matter song. Each chimesmaster has a unique tempo they play the alma matter to, so other chimesmasters know at all times who’s playing. They also have different tempos to mean different things, such as if there are guests in the tower. Ganes’s repertoire ranges from Bach to Miley Cyrus. The Society of Chimesmasters also has a Twitter account on which they take song requests.
Ganes reaches over and checks the oldest bell in the tower. Before he plays the bells, he makes sure he has time to climb up to the roof to check if they’re functioning and not cracked. When renovations are necessary, the chimesmasters try to keep the bells, and their structure, as original as possible, preserving the authenticity of the 132-year old building.
On Thursday mornings, Ganes always stops to peer out of one from the windows at the top of Crouse College. From there, he has a unique perspective on the university, one that most students will never get to see. “It’s important for me to stop and look out whenever I’m up here. It makes me appreciate my opportunity,” Ganes says.
After being selected to be a chimesmaster, Ganes learned to play the bells in a few weeks. While it’s easy to learn, it takes skill and practice to master. Gaines has an advantage, as music and composition come easily to him, but chimesmasters must also have the strength to pull the levers and knowledge to fix the “system” if something goes wrong with the bells or cables during their shift.
Above the bells is a small space that can only hold a handful of people. Referred to as the Chimesmaster’s Lounge, this is where the bell players have their weekly meetings, as well as occasional “lock-ins,” when they stay up there for twenty-four hours and play the bells on the hour.
There are only six members of the Crouse chimesmasters a year, and they recruit new members only if there is a scheduling issue and they need specific time slots covered. Right now, there is a waiting list of twenty students who want to join the group. Each year, current members hand select the next year’s group.
In the upper level sits a guest book dating back to 1881, when the tower was built. The chimesmasters have been rigorous about ensuring that everyone who has ever visited the bells documents their name, hometown and date of their visit. “No exceptions. Everyone signs it. It’s just a tradition of sorts,” Ganes says.
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Luke Rafferty is a sophomore at Syracuse University, studying photojournalism at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication. Luke is passionate about telling people’s stories across an array of medias, and around the world.