Like its peer institutions, the U-M pursues its goals of education and social-cultural construction with a variety of resources, many of which are seldom publicized. Among these resources is the Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments, one of the six largest collections of musical instruments in the nation, it holds more than 2000 pieces from all around the world, from dates ranging between 1451 and 1990. In addition to preserving and exhibiting musical instruments, it sponsors lectures, presents recital/demonstrations and provides a conduit through which University and community members collaborate to make Ann Arbor a musically and culturally diversified city.

    Musical instruments are much more than tools for making music. Their distinctive designs and ornamentation not only embody the knowledge and creativity of specific peoples living in particular times and places; they also express their unique aesthetics and values. The grand piano, for example, reflects the West‘s industrial-technological strength just as an armored vehicle reflects its military might.

    Only a few of the Collection‘s musical instruments are displayed at any single moment, on a rotating basis, in the Vesta Mills Gallery, the Conlin Lobby and other exhibition areas in the Moore Building on North Campus. Most of the holdings are stored in the Argus Building, located on Fourth Street. Despite this limited visibility, the Collection is working hard to achieve its mission of preserving musical instruments, advancing organological knowledge and promoting understanding of world cultures and musics.

    The Stearns Collection has been with the U-M for more than a century. It was launched in 1899 when Frederick Stearns (1831-1907), a successful Detroit businessman, donated a collection of 940 musical instruments to the University. Stearns was not satisfied with his own education, and thus upon his retirement in 1877, he remedied it by traveling extensively and collecting comprehensively. Rather than possessions that attested to his wealth, however, the artifacts he collected became records of his quest for knowledge.

    As soon as it became a part of the University, the Collection was open to the public. Between 1914 and 1975, it was on display on the upper lobby of Hill Auditorium, attracting the attention of many music lovers and informing them of the diversity of musical instruments and music making.

    In the 1960s and 70s, the Collection expanded significantly, as William Malm was both developing the study of world musics and taking care of the musical instruments. In 1966 it acquired the “Venerable Lake of Honey,” a complete Javanese gamelan of 75 gongs, mettalophones, drums and other instruments. The orchestra was more than 100 years old at that time, and it has, since then, become an integral part of the teaching and performance of world musics at Michigan.

    In 1999, the Collection celebrated its centennial, and drafted various plans to update itself as a musical-cultural institution for the twenty-first century. In spring 2004, it will return to the renovated Hill Auditorium with rotating exhibits of musical instruments in the lower lobby.

    The Collection effectively plays such a role because its musical instruments remind people of cultural legacies, technological innovations and expressive creativity. Take, for example, Stearns no. 2345, the York sousaphone, a wind instrument that is named after John Philip Sousa (1854-1932), the noted American bandleader and march music composer whose many famous marches, including the “Stars and Stripes Forever,” defined the genre of march music. Distinguished from the rest of the tuba family by its shape and widely flaring bell, the sousaphone encircles the player‘s torso and rests on his left shoulder. Its deep sound projects forward as its bell points forward above the player‘s head. Acoustically and technologically sound, the unique design ingeniously satisfies the marching band‘s need for a large instrument that can provide a deep bass line for the march tunes, and that can be played while the player marches. In addition to its musical and historical meanings, Stearns no. 2345 holds particular relevance to Michiganders. It was made in the early decades of the twentieth century by the York Instrument Company of Grand Rapids; as such, it is a lesson in the state‘s musical and industrial history.

    Compared to the York sousaphone, which is big and heavy, Stearns no. 704, a Japanese sho (mouth-organ) appears to be much less formidable. It is only about 18 inches tall, and weighs about a pound. These modest physical characteristics, however, are misleading. The sho is a truly impressive instrument. Because of its light weight and small size, it can be conveniently held by the performer, who blows air into the resonator through the mouth piece, activating the reeds of the stopped pipes—15 of the 17 bamboo pipes of the sho have their own reeds and finger holes. When the performer‘s fingers cover the holes, the pipes are stopped and the reed attached to the bottom of the pipes vibrates freely, producing distinctive pitches. Since five or six pipes can be stopped at any single moment, a sho can produce tone clusters or harmonies, the shimmering quality of which has always been described as celestial.

    This description is apt, as it attests to the instrument‘s cosmological, historical and musical significance. The bamboo pipes of the sho are arranged into two ridges to emulate the wings of the mythical phoenix. The instrument is an icon of gagaku, a genre of Japanese court music that was derived from music imported from Tang China (618-907), and was subsequently transformed by Japanese noblemen and professional musicians. Though more than 1,000 years old now, the genre is still flourishing. The exquisite sho harmonies embody a multicultural system of musical-cultural thought and practice that includes Japanese, Chinese and certain Central Asian elements. Historical records have confirmed that Tang Dynasty Chinese music absorbed various musical elements from Central Asian cultures. Perhaps because of such multicultural roots, gagaku has attracted the attention of several seminal twentieth-century composers, including Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) and Karlheniz Stockhausen (b. 1928), who have created new sonorities for contemporary concert music in the Western and westernized world.

    Neither the York sousaphone nor the Japanese sho is currently being used for performance: the former is too fragile for daily use while the latter demands performance skills that few Ann Arbor musicians possess. As a result, both instruments are now more museum pieces than active musical instruments. This limited existence is, however, not true for all Stearns instruments.

    The Stearns gamelan is, for example, very much alive as a performance ensemble. Under the guidance of Judith Becker, students learn to play gamelan music, experiencing not only distinctive rhythm and melodies but also Javanese cultural ideas and social practices. Each year the students present a performance, often accompanied by dance. The gamelan is also a most effective tool to teach Ann Arbor children the world‘s musical and cultural diversity. When appropriate supervision is available, the children are encouraged to make music by striking some of the gamelan gongs, sturdy instruments that can accommodate unskilled performers‘ playing. Many children leave the gamelan with long lasting memories of their first encounter with a music/culture that they cannot imagine in the confines of their local homes.

    For music students, faculty and professionals, the Collection is, however, an educational and research resource. By borrowing Stearns no. 1313, an eighteenth-century English cello, for an extended period of practicing and studying, Mimi Morris, a doctoral student in music arts, learned the idiosyncrasies of historical string instruments, and thus found ways to bring out the expressions of the historical compositions that she performs. Similarly, Sinaboro, a U-M student group of Korean farmers‘ gong and drum music, supplemented its members‘ own musical instruments with several from the Collection and thereby established a presence in Ann Arbor‘s musical scene.

    Music school faculty members, including Fritz Kaenzig and Stephen Shipps, have also borrowed musical instruments for their performance, teaching and research projects, as have local professionals. David Sutherland, a local independent scholar and harpsichord maker, for example, has worked on Stearns no. 1336, an eighteenth century harpsichord, and used the knowledge thus gained to advance his understanding and making of early keyboard instruments.

    While serving the professionals, the Stearns Collection has not ignored the average music lover. It is developing a “virtual museum” in which visual and sonic information about the musical instruments can be easily accessed via the Internet. Numerous digital pictures and sound files of the musical instruments have been compiled, and a website of the Collection has been published. In addition, a computer kiosk was recently installed in the Moore Building‘s Colin Lobby at the music school. By touching the screen visitors can access information about various instruments and also learn about various Stearns events and read back issues of the Stearns Newsletter.

    At the same time, the Collection is continuing its regular activities of presenting the Stearns/Virginia M. Howard lectures and recital-demonstrations. Given four times annually, these lectures cover a wide variety of musical instruments and musics. Recent events include a lecture on Azerbaijian music and musical instruments by Inna Naroditskaya of Northwestern University, and a recital/demonstration by Ma Xiaohui of Shanghai, an internationally acclaimed virtuoso of erhu (Chinese two-string fiddle).

    In addition to support provided by the University and the School of Music, the Collection is fortunate to have support from many patrons and volunteers. Indeed, the leaders of the Friends of the Stearns, Dr. John Psarouthakis, Dr. Robert Whitman and Mr. David Schultz, have led the Collection to many successes. One particularly notable success is the “Adopt-an-Instrument” program, launched in February 2003, which has already secured three “adoptions.”

    For more information on the Stearns Collection and upcoming events, please see

    Joseph Lam is director of the Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments, professor of music (musicology) and chair of the Department of Musicology, U-M. His research specialty is Chinese music history, music historiography, and Asian American music. He has received degrees from Harvard University (PhD), the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music (MFA) and the Chinese University of Hong Kong (BA).