When you go to a museum, if you can somehow swing it, try to glom onto a tour group, the larger the better. It’s not just that you’ll glean more nuggets of lore from the docent, who undoubtedly will be on top of his game for a crowd, but you’ll also get to eavesdrop on comments by tour-group members, usually those lagging near the back.
On a recent visit to the Museum of Making Music, which celebrates the manufacturing and marketing of musical instruments rather than those famous for playing them, I found myself alone – for only about 10 minutes. The cashier at this site on the ground floor of the headquarters for the National Association of Music Merchants warned me, “If you want to use some of the instruments in our interactive area, you better do it now because, pretty soon, there will be 70 high school students here.”
Perfect. Nothing like jaded teenagers, bored and worldly beyond their years, to spice up a museum visit.
It turned out, though, that the gaggle of raging hormones that piled out of a tour bus was the New South Wales Public Schools Symphonic Wind Ensemble and Jazz Orchestra, young Australians barnstorming the United States on concert dates. Far from sullen and bored, these teens in matching black V-neck sweaters marveled at the 500 vintage instruments on display, danced with joy pushing the buttons on the interactive music consoles that played everything from Sousa marches to Jazz Age swing to big-hair rawk. They even showed keen interest in the rather dry details of the music industry and instrument design.
Best of all, they didn’t seem to mind that a middle-age man was part of their herd for a spell.
Their enthusiasm was infectious. In the gallery dedicated to musical innovations and instruments of the 1920s and ’30s, a lanky girl gawked at a display case of wind instruments of the 1930s. She spent minutes reading about how the C Melody saxophone, circa 1923, was a major improvement on the tenor sax because the player could read music without having to deal with parts that had been transposed into B-flat, which other saxes require. Then – gasp! – she caught sight of it: a 1930s Pedler Elkhart bass clarinet, its silver contours gleaming under a halogen light.
“Oh, my God, look at that,” she shrieked in the manner other girls might respond to a One Direction sighting. “A metal clarinet! Look at that!”
She literally grabbed her friend by the sleeve and pulled him over. The guy didn’t even try to feign nonchalance: “That’s so cool.”
The girl was gushing now.
“It is … The. Most. Gorgeous. Thing,” she said.
The two must have spent five minutes in front of Harry Walter Pedler’s handiwork, before wandering off to rejoin the group, which was across the hall pressing the button, over and over, that played Louis Jordan’s “Caldonia” (1945), swinging arms as he belted out the boogie-woogie on the sax and crooned, “Walkin’ with my baby/She got great big feet/She’s long, lean and like/Ain’t had nothing to eat …”
Eventually, the Aussies were led to the Baby Boom gallery, cleverly subtitled “From Placid to Acid.” Here, docent Bill Kirpatrick waxed poetic about Leo Fender’s Telecaster guitar (“Originally called the Broadcaster,” he added), then stopped in front of the display of the Beatles instruments used during their “invasion” of the United States in 1964. He pressed a button and the video image of the Beatles, shaggier now in 1967, performing “All You Need Is Love.”
“When they get out of the chorus, tell me what meter this is,” Kirpatrick quizzed the group. “We’re in 4. Still in 4. OK, ready.”
At the guitar solo, he asked again, “What meter?”
A boy said, tentatively, “7/4.”
“Right,” shouted Kirpatrick. “7/4. Who writes a song in 7/4 if you’re a rock band, right? Again, these are innovators.”
As the students learned, many innovators featured here were far less famous than John Lennon, though there is a display devoted to Thomas Edison, an early member of the National Association of Music Merchants, for his work on the phonograph.
Actually, it’s the instruments themselves that are the star attractions.
Current hipsters who’ve embraced all things ukulele will want to know that they aren’t on to anything new; the instrument emigrated from Hawaii to San Francisco for the Pan Pacific Expo in 1915 and launched a craze among Tin Pan Alley songwriters. But the “breakthrough” instrument of that era was the mandolin, arriving on our shores at the turn of the century with the scores of immigrants. A must-see is one of the few surviving Steinway & Sons’ “G.I. Pianos,” Army-issue green sent to troops in Europe and the Pacific during World War II to bolster morale. A wing is dedicated to the rise and fall of the player piano, the advent of radio being its death knell.
But like that metal clarinet that so enamored the New South Wales museumgoer, some of the most fascinating exhibits are the least expected.
Only a true music geek would get all riled up to see a theremin, a big wooden box (circa 1920) with a metal loop and an antenna. It has the distinction of being the first electronic instrument and being one you play without physically touching anything but air waves. It produces this eerily, otherworldly, ethereal sound. The museum’s display states the timbre “resembles a violin string or a human voice,” that is, if a human voice could go to four and half octaves. Except for a brief star turn in the 1930s when violinist Clara Rockmore played it in concert, the theremin was mainly used for sound effects in thriller movies. You may know it for its memorable solo in the Beach Boys’ 1966 hit “Good Vibrations.”
The theremin, alas, was not one of the instruments made available for visitors to play at the Innovation Studio. Same with the metal clarinet. But upon reaching the interactive room, where electric guitars, a Martin acoustic guitar, drum kits, synthesizers and all manner of keyboards could used for noodling and jamming, the Aussie wind ensemble boys and girls transformed themselves into rock stars, pounding on the skins like Charlie Watts and doing windmill guitar gestures like Pete Townshend.
That cashier was right. I didn’t get a chance to play an instrument myself.
Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.
Museum of Making Music
Where: 5790 Armada Drive, Carlsbad
Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Cost: $8 general; $5 children (ages 6-18), seniors and military
More information: museumofmakingmusic.org