Carolina Music Museum

By Bonnie & Bill Neely

Bryann Burgess, known widely for her special talent as a singer, pianist and speaker, was visiting us recently, and we decided to take the opportunity to visit the Carolina Music Museum in Greenville, SC, for our first time,. We had heard many good reports of this museum, which opened in 2015. What an amazing and delightful surprise this jewel of the Upstate is!  With the largest collection of keyboard instruments in the United States it is second only to the world’s largest in Brussels, Belgium.

We were happy to meet Tom Strange, who was largely the creator of this museum and is owner of many of the instruments in the collection. He repairs and rebuilds keyboard instruments to keep them in superb working condition. He gave us a personal tour, explaining many and demonstrating how keyboards work and how they have evolved to present.  He shared the fascinating stories of some of the instruments. It was a thrill when he invited Bryann, also a graduate of USC in the CarolinaLIFE program, to play several of the historic instruments to enjoy the varied touch and sound of seven centuries of keyboards.

As a science student at the University of South Carolina, Mr. Stange, now a senior director of research and development at St. Jude Medical in Liberty, SC, discovered his fascination with antique keyboards when his professor invited him to play a hand-built clavichord. Instantly something was awakened in Tom and it became his lifelong passion. He built his first harpsichord in 1980 as he discovered that “science and art collide in perfect harmony.”  It took him 280 hours to build, but a neighbor, Debra, was fascinated watching him. She ultimately became his wife and shares his love for antique keyboards.

He wanted to collect and rebuild old keyboard instruments but was not able to do so until 1997 when he could search for them on the Internet.  His first one was a 75-key Collard and Collard, which had been stored for decades in an old barn. It took him 200 hours to research and rebuild it, but he loved every minute. His scientific left brain absorbed the details of a keyed instrument, and his right brain revelled in the sound and art form. From then his full-blown passion could not be quelled. Through the years he collected 25 antique pianos and five harpsichords and dedicated over 10,000 hours to restore them to their period perfection.

To give birth to the marvelous Carolina Music Museum, Strange has loaned his keyboards to the institute and additionally offered a place for the overflow instruments owned by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which could not house all of its collection.  Thus this gem in Greenville was created to further the exploration of sound. Among some of the treasured instruments is a full grand piano played by by Frederic Chopin in 1848 in a private concert in the home of William Armory in England.

One of the elements that draws Strange to purchase a keyboard for his collection is the story that comes with it. One keyboard was in the Ivy Hall Plantation home in Fairfield County, South Carolina, when the Yankee soldiers came through luting and burning so much in their path. Before they destroyed the piano the lady of the house offered to play it for them. After the impressive rendition the soldiers left without destroying the rest of the home or the Nunns & Clark unichord piano. This rare type of piano with a separate string for each note, was built only from 1829 – 1835 for rural areas where tuners were rare.

The oldest keyboard displayed in Greenville’s downtown museum, originated in Chekker, France, cirque 1360!  Demonstrating how the concept and tones of the keys changed through seven centuries the museum’s collection includeds clavichords, harpsichords, double manual harpsichords, ornate pianos, traveling pianos, electronic pianos, and electronic keyboards.The newest one is 2019 from China, a floor mat keyboard.  Seven centuries of keyboards are on display. Strange has formed a supportive partnership with the local Governor’s School for the Arts, and these high school students and others from music departments of nearby schools regularly come here to learn and experience sound and touch.

Throughout the year Carolina Music Museum presents concerts by world-renowned musicians and sometimes features other instrument collections like the Trumpet Collection of Joe and Joella Utley, featured in 2019- 2020.  In May 2020 the museum will be renamed Sigal Music Museum and happily announce the generous gift of the 600-instrument Marlowe A. Sigal Collection.

Each autumn Mr. and Mrs. Strange host a fund-raiser event to support the Museum. Other funding comes from memberships at four levels: Duet $50, Ensemble $75, Sonata $100, and concerto $200. Small ticket prices for admission to the Museum also help. And the gift shop has fascinating and unique gifts for musically minded friends.

The museum is located in the former Coca Cola building on Heritage Square, and is open Tuesday – Saturday 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. and on Sundays 1:00 – 5:00 p.m.  Address is 516 Buncombe Street, Greenville, SC 29601.  Phone: 1 864 520 8807. Ticket prices are nominal.