The Washington Post

Side Order: A music museum that hits all the high notes


Visitors try their hand at playing a variety of musical instruments in the Museum of Making Music's “interactive room.” (Amy Reinink)

As a volunteer who identifies herself as Dancin’ Dee will tell you when you walk into the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad, Calif., this is no ordinary museum.

“In other museums, they’ll tell you to keep quiet,” says Dee Vinton, who has greeted museum visitors for nearly a decade and who, the day I visited, was wearing earrings shaped like tiny electric guitars. “Not here. You’re allowed to dance. You’re allowed to sing. You’re allowed play music yourself.”

With its antique and rare instruments, its artifacts from musicians ranging from John Philip Sousa to the Beatles, and its sound bites of influential music spanning several decades, the Museum of Making Music is a haven for former band geeks, garage-band heroes, guitar-
lesson dropouts and anyone who has ever gazed in awe at the shiny potential of a new musical instrument.

Founded in 1998 by the National Association of Music Merchants, a trade group for manufacturers of musical products, the museum sits on a nondescript side street amid new office buildings and shopping centers just off Interstate 5 in Carlsbad, about 45 minutes north of San Diego. (The museum will close on June 1 for a renovation project and will reopen on Aug. 20.)

While it offers enough kid-friendly, hands-on fun to compete with nearby Legoland, that most obvious of Carlsbad attractions, it also provides enough cultural insights to cater to theme-park-weary parents.

My self-guided tour begins in 1890, when, Dee tells me, women were considered more marriageable if they played the piano, as the only way to have music in the home at the time was to play it live.

Former school-band members will appreciate learning that it was during this era that marching bands became popular, thanks to composer and conductor Sousa. Towns, church groups and Boy Scout troops formed bands, communities built bandstands for their performances, and instrument-makers supplied horns to 10,000 community bands in 1890 alone.

Artifacts on display include a score autographed by Sousa, an original portrait of the composer, and even an early Sousaphone, a tuba designed specifically for marching bands. The exhibit also includes a quote from writer Sherwood Anderson, emphasizing the importance of a community band in a small town: “The band represents a town on its gay days, when the fair comes, when there is a celebration — when every citizen becomes a boy again.”

By the time I listen to a sound bite of Sousa introducing “Stars and Stripes Forever” with a short clip of the song itself, it’s hard not to feel an emotional connection to the music.

Subsequent displays provide just as much insight into how music has shaped history, and vice versa. I learn, for example, that higher wages and a shorter work week spurred a boom in musical instrument sales from 1910 to 1929. Even the most thoughtful music consumers will eye their iPods with more gratitude when they learn that it was only during this era that player pianos and phonographs — both on display — allowed for music in the home without a musician.

Though sales and innovations were in short supply during the years surrounding the Great Depression and World War II, photos depicting migrant farm families strumming acoustic guitars amid poverty and dust show that making music remained as important as ever.

Baby Boomers will like the display of relics from the boom in music lessons that followed the increase from 25 million school-age children in 1950 to 35 million in 1959. Those who missed out on actually playing music in that era will appreciate video clips of Elvis’s early performances and replicas of the Beatles’ instruments.

Would-be rock stars and former guitarists will delight in the display of Leo Fender’s hand tools and in the exhibit of Daisy Rock “girl guitars,” lighter, more streamlined models of guitars and basses meant to spark girls’ interest.

But the point of the museum — to exalt the excitement and joy of actually making music — hits home in the final exhibit, in the “interactive room,” where you can actually play instruments, from a harp to an electric keyboard to a full drum set. The sound is routed to headphones worn by the musician, so newbies can play without fear of spreading discord throughout the museum’s halls.

I linger in this room, delighted to find that my long-ago clarinet-playing days left me with some idea of how to read sheet music for the harp — and to know that my clumsy thwacking at the drum set is for my ears only.

Once I stop giggling from the fun of it all, I remark to Dee that kids must love this room.

“You know,” she says with a coy smile, “grown-up kids like me love it, too.”

Reinink is a freelance writer in Silver Spring.

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