Claudia Barry, owner of the Music Store on Railroad Street in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and her husband, Sean, a master of instrument repair, led parallel childhoods—of a sort. While Claudia toured the great opera houses of the world, watching her mother, classical soprano Phyllis Curtin, sing roles such as Salomé, Mozart’s Countess, and Cathy in Wuthering Heights, Sean lay under his mother’s piano as she played and sang, feeling as if he was in his own private recital hall. While Claudia listened to symphonies on WQXR-FM in New York City, Sean, growing up in New Jersey, hid his portable radio under his pillow at night and listened to WINS and WNBC. (He still owns that radio, which his father gave him in 1956.) Claudia played the violin from age six through high school; Sean played accordion, saxophone, and tuba, the last well enough to earn him a scholarship to Manhattan College. (He turned it down to join the Navy, and played tuba in the U.S. Navy Band.)
For both of them, music was as much a part of daily life as mealtimes, chores, and homework (and, for Claudia, international travel and fancy hotels).
“It was perfectly natural for me, absolutely normal and wonderful to be able to hear music and meet marvelous musicians,” Claudia recalls. “I was in utero when my mother was still singing, so I was listening to music since the moment I was conceived.”
As for Sean, he was surrounded by music, literally, in the form of the instruments collected by his father, a World War I veteran who worked as a repairman for the phone company. “Dad brought instruments home every week,” Sean remembers. “We had every instrument you could think of, and he played them all. He’d noodle around on the sax, the violin, the flute, whatever.”
As the couple muses on their similar family cultures, Claudia, a tall, striking woman who might have been described as “handsome” a century ago, and Sean, who looks like what he is—a middle-aged rocker—sit side by side on a long curving couch in Curtin’s Great Barrington home. Ensconced in an armchair with her dog, Winnie-the-Poodle, curled on her lap, Curtin, too, is moved to reflect on her early introduction to the art form that would become her life.
“My mother was an organist and choir director for the Lutheran church, and my father was a tenor in the choir of the Methodist church,” she says, in a voice that carries a mellifluous resonance even in conversation. “Making music was just natural in our household.” Along with singing, she played violin from ages seven to eighteen and performed with a string trio and the junior-high and high-school orchestras in her small West Virginia town. She met her husband, Eugene Cook, also a violinist and singer, when he was the arts and entertainment editor at LIFE magazine and assigned himself a profile of Curtin on the occasion of her 1956 debut with the New York City Opera.
“It was such a rich life,” Curtin says of her thirty-eight years performing around the world. “Singing, for me, puts together the physical, the intellectual, the emotional, and my imagination. It’s given me such a concept—through the drama, the poetry, the music—of the human condition. It’s been such an extraordinary life music has brought to me.”
Claudia was born at the peak of her mother’s career and was issued her first passport when she was just two weeks old. She grew up partly on this eleven-acre property, which Curtin and her husband bought in 1963 because of its proximity to Tanglewood (Curtin completed her forty-sixth year of teaching at the Tanglewood Music Center this past summer). The cozy space where Curtin now lives, with an open floor plan and large windows, is a 1997 addition to the original 1761 house next door, where the Barrys live and where Sean has his instrument-repair workshop.
It was the house that brought the couple together—more specifically, its floors. Sean’s résumé includes stints as a corpsman in the Vietnam War; guitarist, keyboardist, harmonica player, and vocalist for the band Midlife Crisis; former owner of his own music store in Great Barrington in the 1990s; and a music therapist, working with developmentally disabled children and seniors—as well as an accomplished floor refinisher. He came to the house in 1997 to refinish the floors of the music room, which had suffered water damage. Claudia answered the door, and it was a “love at first sight” moment. “I came to do her floors and never left,” as Sean puts it.
The two have a combined nine children from their previous marriages (seven of whom are now in their twenties) and, as one might expect, music is a huge part of their family. “We sing rounds when we’re making dinner,” Claudia says. “All of the children play guitar, which they learned from Sean; all of them sing. It was part of our lives together.” At least two of them are serious about it: Claudia’s son Sam studied music theory at Yale, while Sean’s son Danny, who he says was “born with rhythm,” plays drums and guitar.
A tour of Sean’s workshop gives the sense that you could almost breathe music in along with oxygen. Every niche, windowsill, wall, and countertop in the narrow room is packed with instruments, perhaps five hundred of them, many dating to Sean’s father’s original collection of vintage pieces. A two-hundred-year-old guitar from France; a 1930s Oahu guitar from Hawaii; a four-string 1920s banjo known as the Maybelle; a harp meant to be placed in a doorway and played by the wind; a 1917 Gibson mandolin with a Mickey Mouse border around the sound hole; a tiny tortoiseshell guitar; dulcimers, lutes, saxophones. The collection overflows into the music room next door, where guitars occupy armchairs, a French horn sits atop the piano, and a giant pipe organ awaits donation to a worthy recipient. In fact, many of the instruments here will end up being gifted to musicians.
“At one point, my son-in-law had ordered a bass guitar on eBay, and when it arrived, it had a broken truss rod in the neck,” recalls area guitarist Steve Ide. “I was in touch with Sean about having it repaired. When we arrived to have it looked at, Sean gave my son-in-law a new bass, as a gift.”
Sean has given many instruments away. After visiting New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, he began soliciting donations of used and new instruments in order to replace those lost in the hurricane. He also launched a fundraising effort during the Gulf War in 1990 to send a thousand harmonicas to the American troops; he called it “Tunes to the Dunes.” Despite multiple medical challenges over the years—including three knee replacements and brain surgery for a congenital defect of the skull—Sean is pulled toward places and people in need.
After 9/11, “I just felt I had to go,” he recalls. A certified EMT, he pitched in at Ground Zero doing the dirtiest work imaginable: bagging bodies and body parts, and later cleaning and maintaining the disastrous bathroom facilities, even prettifying them with candles and flowers. “WBZ-TV in Boston did a spot on Sean and his bathrooms,” Claudia says. “What he was trying to do was create a little bit of humanity in this inhuman hole.” (One of the many expressions of gratitude he received for his work there came in the form of a handwritten note from Bill Clinton.)
Sean brought music with him as well, playing guitar and singing at Nino’s Restaurant in lower Manhattan, where proprietor Nino Vendome served free meals day and night for Ground Zero workers. Claudia and her daughter Gena pitched in there, too, driving down to the city on weekends to help serve the scores of police officers, firemen, and sanitation workers.
Sean is also a force for harmony closer to home, performing at community events such as FODfest, an annual musical tribute to slain journalist and musician Daniel Pearl. Singer-songwriter JoAnne Redding remembers Sean welcoming her into the fold when she arrived in the Berkshires fifteen years ago. “I hardly knew a soul and was a bit intimidated by the thought of going out and meeting musicians again,” she says. “I don’t recall how he knew about me, but I received a phone call one day from Sean Barry. Enthusiastically, he welcomed me to the neighborhood and invited me over to meet some musicians he was having over to jam. I will never forget that, and because of his example, I try to do the same when a new musician comes to town.”
Supporting local musicians is also a priority for the Music Store, which Claudia opened in 2000. Tucked into the bottom floor of a taupe-and-olive house where Railroad and Elm streets meet in downtown Great Barrington, the store carries CDs by regional musicians only, keeps particular strings and accessories in stock specifically for longtime customers, and works with local teachers to make sure the store has the sheet music their students need. The store sells locally crafted instruments, like Ron Brecher’s large-scale wooden xylophones and Serenity Bamboo flutes, some of which are made to be used as canes or walking sticks as well as instruments, produced in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Claudia also carries African djembes, acoustic and electric guitars ranging from $500 to $5,000, violins, new and used student band instruments, mandolins, dulcimers, and often one or two pieces from Sean’s collection of vintage instruments.
The store is perhaps best known, however, for its vast selection of accessories. Like a neater, better-lit version of Sean’s workshop, the 800-square-foot store is jam-packed with guitar strings, “every pick known to mankind,” as Claudia puts it, multiple reeds for wind players, tuners, forks, and metronomes. Each new instrument comes with a lifetime warranty for maintenance and repair.
“Our goal is to try to help people maintain and enjoy their instruments,” Claudia says. “We want to make playing music more fun and more accessible so people can enjoy what they’re doing.” Recently, she’s noticed customers are increasingly purchasing small and fairly inexpensive instruments that are relatively easy to play, such as ukuleles, banjos, harmonicas, pennywhistles, and hand drums.
“I’m seeing a resurgence of interest in a kind of togetherness, making music with family and friends, even making instruments,” Claudia says. “I think people are desperate for communication in an age when more and more of our communication is through artificial means. It gives people a chance to come back together again, with music as the universal language. It’s something people can share at a time when they need something positive to believe in.” [NOV/DEC 2010]
Tresca Weinstein is a frequent contributor to Berkshire Living. Her last article for the magazine, about the Close Encounters With Music series, appeared in the October 2010 issue.
The Music Store
Open Tue-Sat 10-6, Sun 12-5
87 Railroad St.
Great Barrington, Mass.