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Keyed Up for History

Music Students, Faculty Tour MFA Piano Collection

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Music students and faculty toured the MFA musical instrument collection with curator Darcy Kuronen.

By Julia Gavin

While students are most often exposed to modern keyboards like pianos and their electric descendants, the instrument’s family tree has diverse and deep roots. Music students had a chance to go back in time during a recent trip to the Museum of Fine Arts to explore their impressive keyboard collection.

Of the museum’s 1,100 instruments, 180 are on display including several early pianos and related instruments. Darcy Kuronen, head curator of the collection, took the students on a private tour of the highlights, playing several instruments and answering questions along the way.

“Our students really never get exposure to keyboards other than the modern piano in the classroom,” says Asst. Prof. Tim Crain, who organized the trip as a guest instructor for an applied keyboard seminar. “That’s a pretty recent beast and there was so much music composed with older keyboard instruments.  Moreover, as a music historian and the one who introduces music majors to these instruments in the classroom, I thought it would be a great idea for them to see and hear them in person.”

Kuronen discussed the histories and differences of the harpsichords, clavichords and pianos in the collection. Their 1550s harpsichord is one of the oldest in the country and still plays nicely. A clavichord from a few decades later has a different sound because of its altered layout and mechanics. Another 18th-century harpsichord that draws many visitors for its ornate decorations was likely repainted somewhere in its history. The set of stops that allow quick changes to its tone proved more intriguing than its appearance to the students. A fretted clavichord so quiet it was used mostly for composing brought the room to silence. Kuronen said that playing the instrument seems to quiet everything down, including his heartbeat.

The most recognizable instrument for many students was an early piano made by the Medici court instrument maker around 1700. The extended keys included notes that were so low music hadn’t been written using them yet and a foot-activated beater that hits its case to mimic the Turkish-influenced music popular at the time.  

Even though the instruments had similar materials and playing styles – strings, keys to control an action on the string, a case for amplifying sound – students were able to see and hear how the instrument family evolved over time and how it shaped music.  

“We struggle for uniformity now: a Yamaha wants to sound like a Steinway,” says Kuronen.  “Pianos and instruments used to sound different from each other and that makes music change.” 

Students Make Connections

Sofia Lackriam, a music business major who began playing classical piano at age 3, said the trip put her music history class in context. “This was a great chance to make connections between the historical instruments and our classes,” says Lackriam. “It’s really encouraged me to learn more about music history.”  

Charlie Gergson, a performance major who has played piano for 14 years and posts original compositions online, said the tour made him more interested in pre-Baroque music, a period he hasn’t explored much. “I was pleased to hear the instruments played and that they’re in good working condition,” he says.

Meg Ruby, a new lecturer and the coordinator of keyboards at the University, says the trip was a good opportunity for students and faculty to learn more about their instruments and each other. “We’re a diverse department where we can all pull from each other’s disciplines,” Ruby says.

When Kuronen mentioned that clavichords can be easily built with the right skills and materials, Ruby and several students lit up. It’s possible that more than the faculty’s musical skills will be put to use on a future project.  

Crain, who worked with Ruby, Josh Millard, the department’s performance coordinator, chair John Shirley and Dean Luis Falcón to organize and fund the trip, was very happy with the result.

“I really wanted students to see that pianos, even older ones, aren’t sacrosanct,” says Crain. “They’re meant to be played, as these were today.”  

For photos from the students’ trip, visit the Facebook gallery. For more on the museum’s musical instruments, visit their website