People have been on the move throughout history, and music has always moved with them.
That statement is, perhaps, the best explanation for my deep love of both travel and music. As Robert Louis Stevenson said about travel, “The great affair is to move.” Music also moves, and I am passionate about both.
My recent travels found me moving from one end of the U.S. to another, as I departed East Tennessee for the desert Southwest. My son and I went out to Scottsdale, Arizona, to visist my dad. It was my son’s first trip out there – and his first airplane ride! – but my umpteenth. While visiting with my dad always is a treat, and his backyard pool is a welcome respite from those 100+ temperature days, on this trip I really wanted to explore the area a bit and take in some culture. At the top of my list was the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) in Phoenix, the world’s only global musical instrument museum. I’d heard from Dad and a few others that it’s an exceptional place. Being the music maven and history hound that I am, I felt it was a place I needed to see.
My dad had just dropped by the museum with friends a few days prior to my arrival, but he was more than happy to accompany my 2-year-old son, Anthony, and me on our first visit. Dad had warned me before we left that to really experience the entire museum, visitors need one full day at the very least. I knew my son wouldn’t last that long so I was determined to see as many of the exhibits as possible during our time there.
Of the museum’s five collections, my top priority was the Geographic Galleries. This is where visitors “travel the world through the magic of music”, each sub-gallery focusing on one of five major world regions. First one we stopped at was the United States/Canada Gallery. At the entrance of the gallery is a vast exhibit honoring the musical traditions and heritage of the Native American peoples of Arizona and the Southwest. Beyond there, the displays are organized according to musical style and region. The week before we went to Arizona, I was in Bristol, Tennessee, known as the birthplace of country music, where I learned about the history and evolution of the genre. The displays at MIM augmented what I’d discovered in Bristol by traveling even deeper into the history of American music. You may know by now that I’ve been taking banjo lessons for a few months, so I was particularly interested in the bluegrass and banjo exhibits at MIM. I was rather surprised to learn that the banjo as we know it today evolved from a more primitive instrument first played by African slaves. In fact, the banjo was played primarily by African Americans until the 19th century, after which the instrument’s popularity spread throughout Appalachia. Moving over to the Africa and Middle East Gallery, we saw even more examples of banjo precursors in displays of instruments from places like Senegal. I am completely fascinated by the banjo’s story and now it provides me with a further appreciation of the instrument and the music it produces.
We made it through all of the Geographic Galleries and I excitedly snapped photos of and listened to samples of music from places I’m enamored with, most notably Scotland and Italy. Before Anthony became too tired, I wanted to make sure we got to spend time in the Experience Gallery. It’s an area on the museum’s lower level where visitors of all ages are invited to touch, play, and hear an assortment of instruments from around the world. First thing I spotted when we entered the gallery was the rack of acoustic guitars and banjos in the corner. I rushed over and noticed that the banjos are the same as the one I have, a Deering Goodtime banjo! I grabbed one, plopped on the floor, and began picking away. There I was, a grown adult in the middle of a swarm of school kids on field trips, in my own little world. Eventually, I took notice of the fact that my son was wholly uninterested in what I was doing so I returned the banjo to the rack and followed him around as he played and discovered. The hands-on activities of the Experience Gallery held his attention for a fair amount of time, but when he realized he was tired, I realized our visit was over. He’d had enough so we headed out, even though we didn’t make it to the Artist Gallery and the Mechanical Music Gallery.
Anyone visiting the area who is even slightly interested in music, history, geography, and even travel, must visit MIM. As Dad warned, we didn’t get to see everything in the few hours we were there, so I’m already planning a return visit for the next time I’m in Phoenix. MIM is absolutely kid-friendly as evidenced by the numbers of elementary school students on field trips, but it may not be very fun for the younger children. As I mentioned, my son is 2 and aside from the Experience Gallery, there wasn’t much else for him to do. I am not discouraging anyone from visiting because it’s such a wonderful place; just know that the wee ones may not get as much out of the experience. Unless, of course, you let them bang the gongs the whole time.