Vol. 38, No. 18
By: Julia Harris
Ringing OSU's famous bells
Playing Orton Hall chimes honor, responsibility
The chimes in Orton Hall automatically ring every 15 minutes to the stately tune of the Westminster Chimes. But for special occasions like weddings, graduations — and the occasional marriage proposal — a more human touch is required.
Donna Knisley, a “jill”-of-all-trades, has been ringing the Orton Hall bells to various tunes for the better part of a decade.
“It’s lovely to be part of such an important event in people’s lives,” says Knisley, who adds she gets a lot of requests to play the alma mater when someone proposes marriage on the Oval.
Knisley, an office associate with the Department of Family Medicine, took over the role of bell ringer from Tom Cook, an office associate for the School of Music who had played the chimes from 1986 to 1998. Her music training — she minored in music at Milligan College — and her experience playing the piano at her church made it relatively easy to slide into the seat vacated by Cook.
“Notes are notes,” says Knisley, who also helps coach the OSU varsity pistol team. “If you can read music, you can play the bells.”
“Playing the bells” actually means playing an electronic keyboard that is wired to the tower’s 14 chimes. The old chimestand — a dusty, boxy array of big wooden levers that had to be pulled for each note — was taken out of commission years ago.
“The levers were harder to play and very heavy,” says Cook, who played for countless university functions, even those that happened late at night.
Before passing the torch to Knisley, Cook wrote out the music for a collection of OSU fight songs and compiled them in a notebook. The reverb of the bells makes it impossible to play harmonies, so all songs have to be reduced to simple melody lines.
Further complicating the process is the fact that the bells can only play a limited range of notes.
“We almost have an octave, including the flats and sharps,” Knisley says. “Because it’s not a complete octave, we’re restricted in the type of music we can play.”
The original 12 chimes, which weigh 25,000 pounds, were a gift of the Ohio State classes from 1906-14 and play in the key of D flat. In 2003, two more bells were added. These chimes play the notes of G sharp and A sharp, expanding the range of music available to be played.
With the dedication of the new bells, Knisley says, the process of implementing an electronic system was completed. Only the keys on the keyboard that actually make music when struck remain active; the others have been locked down.
Even though the chimestand itself is no longer operational, it and the bells continue to be a tourist attraction for students, alumni and visitors — despite the fact that getting into the bell tower is a bit of an adventure. Would-be explorers must go up three flights of stairs, cross a wooden bridge over the rafters of Orton Hall and duck through a small rounded door. To reach the bells, you’ve got to squirm carefully up two narrow wooden ladders.
“I don’t get up there much,” Knisley confesses. “It’s usually after work or on weekends, or on my lunch breaks.”
She estimates she does about five or six events a year, from the occasional wedding to the annual Rock Ceremony to the April 19 ceremony honoring the victims at Virginia Tech. There are other people across campus who have access to the bells, including members of Ohio State student groups like the Chimes Junior Class Honorary.
Students say ringing the bells is an event they’ll never forget.
“After I was inducted into Chimes in the spring of my sophomore year, I climbed up the bell tower with my fellow members and we all got a chance to play something,” says Jon Avery, a junior majoring in economics. “I chose Carmen Ohio. It is easily one of my greatest memories at Ohio State.”
Knisley shares his sense of awe at being able to play the famous bells. “The first time I did it, I was very nervous, but I also had this huge pride in my heart, knowing I was ringing the bells at The Ohio State University,” Knisley recalls. “I actually got chills playing for the Virginia Tech memorial.”