By Emily Younker
Globe Staff Writer
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Christopher Grills has a clavichord. And he might be the only person around who can make a claim like that.
"I would say this is the only clavichord in Joplin, wouldn't you?" he mused, quite seriously, to the Globe last week from his parents' house in Loma Linda. "I've seen very few other clavichords, period."
Grills, a 2010 graduate of Joplin High School, is making it his life's mission to study and play keyboard instruments, including the piano, the harpsichord and the organ. He lately has taken a particular liking to the clavichord, a stringed keyboard instrument used throughout western Europe during the Renaissance era until the early 19th century.
Grills named his clavichord SpŸrsinn, a German word for "serendipity" -- a fitting name, considering how it came into his possession.
Two years ago, Grills was part of a cross-country tour with the collegiate choir of Illinois Wesleyan University, where he is a student. For overnight lodging in each city on their tour, choir members were divided into small groups and parceled out to stay with churches and volunteer families.
By chance, Grills ended up in a home during their Rochester, N.Y., stay that was filled with instruments, including pianos, barrel organs, a pipe organ and a carillon. He sat down at one of the host family's pianos and began playing a piece by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, a German composer (and son of his more famous father, Johann Sebastian Bach) who is known for his clavichord compositions.
"They (the host family) said, ÔYou know, we have a clavichord,'" Grills said. "I just knew about it as a hobbyist. I hadn't seen one or played one before. He said, ÔWould you mind taking this off our hands?'"
Grills said he initially declined taking their clavichord, which was built from a kit from Zuckermann Harpsichords International, a Stonington, Conn.-based company. It was designed after the 18th-century model that Bach himself might have played. But clavichords are expensive (even a used instrument could cost thousands), and Grills wasn't sure he could accept the offer.
The family eventually persuaded him to take it, and the clavichord was boxed up and given the front seat of the choir's tour bus all the way back to Illinois. The instrument currently lives at Grills' parents' house and recently was transported to the Post Memorial Art Reference Library in Joplin, where Grills performed a concert.
"The chances that this would happen at all," Grills said, seated at the clavichord, his voice trailing off. "I still look at it, and I still can't believe it happened that way."
Grills' passion for music began at an early age when his parents, who had basic training in piano and guitar, recognized that their son appeared to have perfect pitch. They started him in piano lessons at age 6, and he continued those through high school, where he joined the orchestra and was an accompanist for many of his classmates.
At Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, he studies piano performance, with minor lessons in harpsichord and organ. Last year, he studied in Vienna, Austria, through IES Abroad, an exchange program, and intends to return this semester.
Studying keyboard instruments in one of Europe's centers of classical music has been almost unreal for Grills. He said he can get a ticket to a performance at the Vienna opera house for 3 euros (about $3.92 in American dollars). And original manuscripts of classic compositions are available for perusal at the national library -- all you apparently have to do is ask to see them, he said.
"I think any serious musician would find even a short trip to Vienna very eye-opening," he said. "I can't even describe it in words. It's just a life-changing experience."
Grills expects to graduate in May 2014 and plans to seek an advanced degree in historical performance, with an emphasis in early keyboard instruments. He's already looking at a handful of prestigious schools and said he would ultimately consider becoming a college professor, giving music lessons or directing period string ensembles.
The clavichord began disappearing during the 19th century as the piano became more popular, and Grills said he thinks it hasn't regained its popularity primarily because of its volume. It's a rather quiet instrument -- so quiet, in fact, that the sound of someone running a vacuum in another room of his parents' house is almost enough to drown out its sound.
But he hopes the clavichord will get a second breath with the advance of digital music recordings and the ease with which people can access those recordings. Some modern recording artists, such as the Beatles and Bjork, have even used a clavichord in their music.
"I feel like the instrument has a chance to make a comeback," he said. "It has a sound that, I think, would be quite accessible to a lot of modern listeners. There's sort of an electric-like quality to it. I think the modern listener would really warm up to this instrument."
In fact, the way Grills talks, it seems as if he wants to start a mild music revolution.
"There are a few things I would like to see changed in how society in general listens to music, and I think this" -- he points to his clavichord -- "is a perfect example of it," he said. "I think the instruments for which I have a large passion aren't very common, and I feel like that's not the way it has to be or the way it should be."