Striking the right note

24th March 1995 at 00:00
Finchcocks is a museum where young visitors are positively encouraged to touch the exhibits.

It's rare enough for a collection of antique musical instruments to be in full playing order, but rarer still for a museum to demonstrate the instruments and even allow visiting school children to try their hand at playing them.

"People are astonished when we say children can touch and play the pianos, but experience has taught us that the instruments have nothing to fear from their little hands. Professional musicians are far more dangerous," says Richard Burnett, founder and co-director with his wife Katrina of Finchcocks Living Museum of Music near Goudhurst in Kent.

Housed in a magnificent Georgian manor surrounded by 13 acres of park land and gardens, the collection consists of some 80 keyboard instruments, mainly from the 18th and l9th centuries, including chamber organs, harpsichords, virginals (one from 1668), spinets, clavichords and pianos. About half are in perfect playing order, making Finchcocks the largest collection of fully-restored keyboard instruments in Britain.

Most museums are not allowed to restore their instruments, which usually have to be preserved as found. But since the whole point of Richard Burnett's collection was to enable musicians to re-create the music of the classical composers on the sort of instruments they themselves used, restoration was essential.

Originally a modern concert pianist (he now gives virtuoso early piano recitals all over the world), Richard Burnett began collecting early pianos in the 1960s. When his tiny Pimlico home was bursting at the seams, he looked around for new premises and eventually settled on Finchcocks, which opened to the public in 1977. "The house fulfilled all our requirements," he says. "It was run down and hence cheap; the tranquil setting, high ceilings and oak panelling were conducive to music-making and the outbuildings made an ideal workshop."

Apart from the top two floors, which have accommodation for visiting musicians, the entire house is occupied by antique keyboard instruments. The Burnetts themselves live next door in the more modest stable block.

True to its name, Finchcocks really is alive with music. "Our credo is that the instruments are heard every time we open," says Burnett. School parties are treated to a lively demonstration concert, usually by the founder himself, during which he enlists the children's help to pump the chamber organ, turn the handle of the barrel organ and try to get a loud note (impossible) out of the harpsichord. The most popular number, invariably, is a rousing interpretation of Mozart's Turkish Rondo, played, as the composer intended, on a piano with integral drum and bells.

Afterwards, the children are encouraged to wander round in small groups to draw or play the instruments and look at the other exhibits, which include wind instruments, early printed music and working models of piano and harpsichord actions. "They usually descend on the instruments like locusts and make a ghastly racket which gives me the shivers but doesn't actually do any harm, " says Burnett with a smile. "The children who come here tend to be musical and we feel we can trust them." There's a ban on running, however, and children are asked not to touch any part of an instrument except the keyboard. Their restraint is rewarded with a chance to run wild and picnic in the grounds or, if it's raining, in the huge, vaulted cellar cafe.

Visits can be adapted to primary, secondary or student level (the minimum age is seven), and linked to GCSE or other special projects. Questionnaires and preparatory material can be sent in advance and, for schools involved in 18th-century projects, there's an optional extra talk about the daily life of the period, for which the children usually dress in costume. For serious young keyboard players, there's an annual Young Performers' Recital at Finchcocks' September Festival (auditions from April) and some bursaries are available to enable young people to attend workshops and courses and practice on the instruments in the collection.

Finchcocks Living Museum of Music, Goudhurst, Kent TN17 lHH. School visits by appointment, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays (morning or afternoon) from the beginning of April to the end of the October. Primary Pounds 3.50 each, secondary Pounds 3.80 each. Minimum charge Pounds 120, but subsidies available for small groups. Contact Richard and Katrina Burnett. Tel: 01580 211702.

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