My journey to the Carolina Music Museum

Carolina Music Museum

Photo credit: @carolinamusicmuseum

by: Dr. Jon Jeffrey Grier, Instructor and Composer in Residence, Greenville Fine Arts Center

I’ve been an instructor of music theory and music history at the Greenville Fine Arts Center since 1988. In the early 2000’s, the Greenville County Museum of Art hosted Thursday late afternoon events, some about art and some not. One week, in the fall of 2008, there was advertised a program about historic keyboard instruments. Though my own work as a musician has nothing to do with performance on period instruments, I thought it might be interesting and I recommended it to my students and attended myself.

I should have gotten there earlier. The place was packed and patrons were jammed close to the instruments and the man giving the lecture, Dr. Thomas Strange. I could just barely see and hear, but what I heard was truly fascinating. A skilled young keyboardist played examples on each of the instruments and Dr. Strange intermingled anecdotes and a few technical details between the bits of music. The sounds were interesting and appealing, and it was obvious that this guy was very enthused about the topic and clearly knew what he was talking about. His presentation made the topic more than just interesting... it was fascinating, a story about humans making music in the best way they knew how.

After the program, the attendees were invited to come up and ask questions of Dr. Strange. I wanted to, but it was hopeless. He was thronged, no surprise. My stomach rumbling and a pile of theory papers waiting to be critiqued, I went home. The next day I contacted the Museum staff who organized the Thursday programs and was given his email address.

Dr. Strange answered my message almost immediately. Turns out, he has more of these instruments. Turns out, he’s not just a collector-hoarder... he is eager to share them with interested students and adults. And, it turns out, he’s really good at this.

Where’s the collection kept? “At my house.” Where’s that? “Easley.” Really? Uh, could I bring a bunch of teenagers to have a look? “Please! Let’s look at our calendars.” So I organized a field trip (paperwork nightmare... this better be good) for one of my advanced classes. The FAC Director at the time, Dr. Roy Fluhrer, said “You’re going to do what? In Easley???” But, he somehow trusted me not to do anything foolish and gave his blessing. I commandeered the FAC minibus and off we went one day after school.

Tom welcomed us graciously into his home and regaled us for 90 minutes with anecdotes and demonstrations on the instruments. Turns out, all the instruments can be played. Turns out, Tom is also the one who restores the instruments, using only methods that would have been used at the time of their production. And, it turns out, he has a lot of these things... probably 20 or so at the time. We were getting a private tour of a world-class collection of incredibly rare instruments and getting to try them out. In Easley.

Turns out, Tom is not a musician. Well, actually, he fits my definition of a true musician quite perfectly. But he doesn’t make a cent as a collector/keeper/restorer/performer/researcher of historic keyboards. No, by day he is a materials scientist specializing in medical implant technology and the author of 40-some patents with an emphasis on foil development for aluminum electrolytics. Whatever that is. On top of all of this, he has served on various committees and boards – the Warehouse Theater, the Greenville Symphony, the Pickens County Red Cross, and various business groups, to name a few. I’m inclined to think that Tom’s real medical breakthrough is this: he’s learned how to survive without sleep.

So the class visits have continued – once, sometimes twice a year – ever since, gradually turning into full two-hour visits followed by dinner out with everyone at an Asian place. I remember one particularly arresting moment 3 years ago... among my students was a remarkable young pianist who could play the fiendishly difficult Etude op.10, #12, nicknamed “The Revolutionary,” by Frederic Chopin (no, I cannot play it, not even close). The keyboard collection includes an 1845 Broadwood grand piano on which it is documented that Chopin himself played a concert near the end of his life in England. The story goes that the head of the household had mostly complained about Chopin’s exorbitant fee... another great artist underappreciated. But there was our student, retracing the path of Chopin’s fingers on Chopin’s piano, some 170 years later. It gets your attention.

You may be thinking... “that’s all well and good for specialists...” Well, yeah, sure. But I know next to nothing about this corner of music history, and because the stories are so real - about humans working to find solutions to problems that will enrich the making of music - that I am drawn in as would anyone faintly interested in the evolution of Western culture. Are you interested in physics? There are stories about the improvements in acoustical properties. Interested in carpentry? Many of the instruments are made of beautiful, rare woods, with exquisite inlays and unique shapes. Interested in history? We learned that in the mid-19th century South, there was actually a business in polishing smooth a piano manufacturer’s nameplate so that it didn’t have to have the words “New York” on it anymore.

Through the years Tom’s interest in us grew. He has generously supported scholarships, served in an advisory role, and sponsored concerts at the Fine Arts Center for which instruments from his collection were trucked (very carefully) to the FAC for the performances. And he began to wonder what to do with his collection – now dubbed the Carolina Clavier Collection and totaling 40-some instruments – in the long term. He was running out of room in his house.

It turned out that the answer to that question was the Carolina Music Museum, which just opened this past March with Tom as Artistic Director and Curator, and in his retirement, Roy Fluhrer as Executive Director (and overheard to say “Retirement? What retirement???). Located at Heritage Green on Buncombe Street, next to the Upstate History Museum and the Greenville County Library, we no longer have to go to Easley to see these marvels of history. In fact, this spring we were able to bring almost the entire FAC Music Department – more than 100 students, in small groups - to visit the museum. All came back amazed. Many have also attended concerts at the Museum. I myself was so taken with a recent concert by the Musica Curioso Duo – performing on an 1824 piano and Ben Franklin’s favorite invention, the glass harmonica – that I was inspired to compose a new work for this unusual combination. The Duo will perform it on their return concert in October.

This remarkable place is easily accessible to everyone, the admission fee a pittance for what’s included. I am sure that after a single visit you will share my enthusiasm for this remarkable experience, one that is very rare in the world, but available right here in Greenville.

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