John McKean and falling in love with the harpsichord

Tickets are now on sale for Winter Baroque!


When you were thirteen, what did you dream about doing when you grew up? I had a passion for dinosaurs and devoured every book I could find, inspired by frequent visits to the American Museum of Natural History across town. While ranging the exhibits, I’d become lost in the dioramas, imagining I was standing on the African savanna, the Antarctic ice pack, or at the bottom of the sea witnessing an epic battle between a whale and giant squid.

In the mornings on the 6 train headed to school surrounded by sleepy commuters, I’d lose myself in Walter Mitty fantasies of exploration and adventure, scaling the Himalayas or trekking through the Amazon. Sitting in my parent’s car on the NJ turnpike visiting my grandparents, I battled Euro-villains Tintin-style or swung between urban canyons like Spiderman. I worry nowadays that children, glued to their phones, no longer have that precious space to let the imagination wander.

A young McKean pores over plans
as he prepares to build his first harpsichord

Harpsichordist John McKean had fantasies too. Stumbling upon the "harpsichord" setting on an early-model electronic keyboard led to a fascination with the sound of this ancient instrument, precursor to our modern piano. Harpsichords not being easy to procure in rural Maine, the best approach proved to be to just build one himself, a quixotic quest his non-musician parents happily indulged, leading to a lifetime pursuit.

Who can resist that new-harpsichord smell?

There is the supposition that musicians do what we do because we are driven by a pure love of music. The reality is more nuanced. It isn’t just that music is our chosen realm of expression but also that the specific physical act provides us with a deep sense of satisfaction. Think of someone drawn to one distinct sport: some of you love swinging a bat, driving a ball to the hoop, strapping on a pair of running shoes. Or maybe it is the feel of wet clay spinning under your hands, knitting a scarf in front of the fire, or working in your garden. It is a cliché, but the process really is as important as the journey.

First test drive!

As a small child, John was ineluctably drawn to the sound and the feel of the harpsichord. Imagine that child sitting down at his harpsichord for the first time, how it felt to play on something he built with his own hands, to look up, see it sitting in the corner, and think “I made that!

John McKean, still tuning harpsichords

John will be grounding our continuo section on the NCMF Winter Baroque Concert on Sunday, December 17th at 3:00 in St. Paul’s. I’m so grateful there are people like him out there.

David Yang, Artistic Director

Trevor Pinnock and Bach’s
Harpsichord Concerto No.1 in D Minor

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