Montshire Museum Designs Exhibit About How Music Gets Made

  • While at the museum with his daughter, Daisy, 11, Craig Bee of Quechee, Vt., jams on the double bass at the Montshire Museum’s new exhibit, “Making Music,” in Norwich, Vt., on Jan. 24, 2017. (Sarah Priestap photograph)

  • An exploded view of a saxophone exhibits how the complicated design of the instrument allows it to be easier to play at the Montshire Museum’s new exhibit, “Making Music,” in Norwich, Vt., on Jan. 24, 2017. (Sarah Priestap Photograph)

  • While enjoying a snow day off from school, Ava Helms, 7, left, her brother Jacob, 11, and their grandfather, Don, all from Hartford, Vt., play in the band section at the Montshire Museum’s new exhibit, “Making Music,” in Norwich, Vt., on Jan. 24, 2017. (Sarah Priestap photograph)

  • The winding wires and knobs of a synthesizer showcase the realms of electronic-based music at the Montshire Museum’s new exhibit, “Making Music,” in Norwich, Vt., on Jan. 24, 2017. (Sarah Priestap photograph)

  • Tami Sullivan, of Orford, N.H., watches her daughter, Panda, 2, use a lever to open the bellows of an accordion at the Montshire Museum’s new exhibit, “Making Music,” in Norwich, Vt., on Jan. 24, 2017. (Sarah Priestap photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/27/2017 9:59:56 PM

A stone’s throw from the Montshire Museum of Science’s familiar exhibits of honey bees and leafcutter ants, a girl of 10 or so drew a bow across the strings of a double bass on Monday afternoon, bouncing deep notes around the second floor.

In the middle of the room, a toddler standing on a bench pounded the keys of an upright Kohler & Campbell piano with his fingers and, through a plexiglass window, watched the attached hammers strike the corresponding strings.

And in another corner of the 2,500-square-foot space, I wagged my 60-year-old right hand around the upright antenna of a theremin — an early electronic instrument played not by touching keys, but by hovering hands near sensors — while adjusting the volume of the instrument’s ghostly WAOs, WOOs, WHOAs and WHEEs by moving my left hand over a horizontal-loop antenna at the other end of the device.

Welcome to “Making Music: The Science of Musical Instruments.” The new exhibit, which museum staff curated and assembled with help from musicians and instrument makers, many of them from the Twin States, is intended to pull instruments apart for inspection and give visitors a hands-on experience. It opened in November and will run through mid-September.

“It’s an instant engagement for a visitor,” museum exhibits director Bob Raiselis said during a tour of the show earlier in the day. “When we were testing different parts of it with people, we kept hearing, ‘Can I touch it? Can I really touch it?’ Yes: You can really bow a cello here. You really can play the piano or the electronic drums.”

In all, you can play 14 instruments, divided among the categories of Air, Strings, Percussion and Electronic. They include an accordion, a modular synthesizer, a guitar and drums — among them a West African djembe made by performer-teacher Sayon Camara and a metal one that Burlington craftsman Tim Danyliw fashioned from a propane tank.

You can see another 20 instruments on display, some with accompanying videos by makers and players. They range from an Indian sitar and a harp in the String section to two saxophones — one fully assembled, one dismantled into dozens of pieces — and a flute that Bridgewater craftsman Kai Mayberger made for the Air section at the invitation of assistant exhibits director Sherlock Terry.

Terry didn’t need to ask Mayberger twice.

“I adore the Montshire,” Mayberger said this week, during a telephone interview from the White Raven studio where he makes and sells drums and didgeridoos, the traditional wind instruments of Australia’s aboriginal people as well as flutes. “I started going with my wife when we first moved back to Vermont, and over the years we took our kids. I always loved the combination of hands-on and good science.”

In addition to the playing and learning about the instruments, young visitors can choose from several tinkering projects during special activity times, including building a bellows for an accordion and sampling sounds on strings based on their tension, length and thickness.

And in a separate area, visitors of any age can form an impromptu band, choosing to play a guitar, a set of drums or a keyboard.

“The idea was to combine both science and art, in telling the stories of people who make instruments and people who play instruments,” Terry said. “It’s not so much about music than about musical instruments: the physics of sound, the length of vibrations, what happens with note changes.”

With support from the David Goudy Discovery Fund, named for the museum’s former longtime director, museum staff started brainstorming and assembling the exhibit in 2015. By the spring of 2016, “we were putting prototypes of different instruments out on the floor and letting visitors mess about with them,” Raiselis said. “We walked back and watched them.”

“If you’ll pardon the expression,” Terry added, “we saw what resonated with visitors.”

“That helped us narrow down the subjects and the instruments to something manageable,” Raiselis said. “There was a lot of weeding to do.”

There was also a learning curve for the staff.

“The air instruments were a lot more complex than I thought,” Terry said. “There are a lot of subtleties involved. Turns out you can’t just shove air through a clarinet and make it play.”

In conjunction with the exhibit, the Montshire later this winter will host a free series of Tuesday-night discussions about the interaction between music and the human brain, emceed by Michael Casey, chairman of the department of music at Dartmouth College. Each talk starts at 6:30.

The series begins on March 14, with George Jernstedt, a retired Dartmouth professor of psychological and brain sciences, explaining the ways the mind processes music in telling stories.

On March 21, Erica Myers, memory-care director of Kendal at Hanover, will introduce a screening of Alive Inside, a 2014 documentary about the efforts of the nonprofit Music & Memory to use music to help patients cope with memory loss.

The series concludes on March 28 with Beau Sievers, a graduate student with the Dartmouth Social Intelligence Lab, presenting his doctoral research on the ways in which people in different parts of the world express emotion through music and movement, and on the use of magnetic resonance imaging to understand the brain’s response to music and movement.

The discussions and the exhibit are part of the Montshire’s ongoing effort to provide what Raiselis describes as “new experiences.” In 2012, the museum exhibited the nature pictures of illustrator Charley Harper to examine the similarities between artistic creativity and scientific inquiry.

Raiselis, former webmaster for Valley Net, also figures that a built-in audience of performers and music aficionados and artisans will help spread the word about this new exhibit.

“The Upper Valley is a very musical place,” Raiselis said. “There’s a pre-existing engagement with the subject right there.”

“Making Music: The Science of Musical Instruments,” is on display at the Montshire Museum of Science through mid-September. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; admission is free for museum members and for children younger than 2, and $12 to $15 for the general public. The museum also offers $3 admission to Vermont and New Hampshire residents with proof of eligibility for food stamps, Medicaid and free or reduced-price meals at their schools. To learn more about the exhibit and the rest of the museum’s offerings, visit

David Corriveau can be reached at and at 603-727-3304.


Sherlock Terry is the assistant exhibits director of the Montshire Museum. A story in the Jan. 28 Valley News about the museum's "Making Music" exhibit incorrectly reported his title.

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