New Music Emerges From Elkhart's Instrument Past

Dozens of band instrument makers used to be part of the local economy in Elkhart, Ind. But since the city was battered by the economy, only three major companies remain. One says it will manufacture instruments only in the U.S. - and it will hire new workers to grow the business and regain market share.

If there's one place where "strike up the band" has meant more than making music, it's in Elkhart, Ind. Although the boom times are long past, instrument manufacturing has been a part of the city's economy for more than a century.

Elkhart was once home to 60 instrument manufacturers. But the musical instrument industry has changed drastically — affected by imports, consolidations and reduced school budgets for music.

Today, only three major companies remain in Elkhart: Conn-Selmer, E.K. Blessing and Gemeinhardt Flutes. These companies are struggling to survive in a city with one of the country's highest unemployment rates.

A Band Instrument Capital

The band room where students practice at Concord High School in Elkhart is not far from the school's gym where President Obama held a town hall meeting last year to pitch his economic stimulus package.

Many of the shiny trumpets, trombones, clarinets and other instruments the students play were made in town. That musical tradition once made Elkhart the "Band Instrument Capital of the World."

"Elkhart may no longer be the world leader, but it's still the band instrument capital of the U.S.," says John Stoner, chief executive officer of Conn-Selmer.

Conn-Selmer's Vincent Bach division in Elkhart produces one of the best-known brands of trumpets and trombones. Nearly 1,000 people work at Conn-Selmer — and more than half of them do so in Elkhart. Stoner says Conn-Selmer has survived the turmoil of this latest recession by cutting salaries, shutting down plants for a day and laying some people off.

"Because of the skill sets required to manufacture an instrument — as far as the labor and handiwork — we needed to keep as many people employed as we possibly could because trying to retrain people when the economy does come out of it is a very expensive proposition," Stoner says.

Conn-Selmer makes more than 50,000 instruments a year. At the Elkhart plants, workers turn flat sheets of brass into a trumpet bell, pull the holes up in the metal for flutes and build a variety of other instruments.

Student and intermediate instruments, including a flute designed by flutist James Galway, make up the bulk of sales and account for most jobs. Conn-Selmer also makes more expensive and higher-quality professional instruments. Before the instruments are shipped to dealers, testers play them to make sure they're in tiptop shape.

The Impact Of Imports

Elkhart instrument makers face some of the same challenges with imports that other types of American manufacturers encounter. An influx of instruments manufactured in countries like China, where the labor force is paid $1 per hour or less, has forced Elkhart companies to change their ways by sending production overseas to countries with less expensive labor costs or by closing down altogether. Tight state budgets have also had an effect on school music programs.

At Concord High School, music director Gay Burton says even in a music-minded community like Elkhart, there's always the chance that music programs might have to be scaled back because of budget cuts.

"When the cuts are so deep, you just can imagine it's going to affect everything in the school," she says.

Another Elkhart instrument maker, E.K. Blessing, has been an Indiana mainstay since 1906. A small cadre of 20 employees, mostly part-timers, works at the plant.

Massachusetts-based Powell Flutes bought E.K. Blessing last year, lured in part by Elkhart's pool of workers already skilled in the art of making musical instruments. Last week, the company caused quite a stir in a town that's seen record unemployment figures. It announced plans to add 22 new full-time jobs by 2012 with an expectation of many more to come.

A Commitment To Making Instruments In The U.S.

Blessing's general manager, Steve Rorie, says what's garnered the most attention is Blessing's decision to forgo importing musical instruments — a practice that most U.S. instrument manufacturers, including its Elkhart competitors, engage in. Blessing says it will no longer produce its instruments in other countries.

"We've committed to Elkhart again and we've committed to American manufacturing and that certainly seems to strike an emotional chord with so many, many people," Rorie says.

County and state tax credits and $2.6 million in federal stimulus money will help E.K. Blessing move into a new facility. The company is adding professional high-end instruments to its line to appeal to an export market that its parent company has already established.

Rorie says there's already been an increase in orders. There's also a hiring sign on the company door, and he expects that as the recession recedes more band directors will look to buy better-quality instruments.

"Will that be enough to truly say Elkhart is back as clearly the leader in instrument manufacturing? That's a difficult one to predict," Rorie says.

Even so, as E.K. Blessing plans to toot more of its own horns, the company and Elkhart's other musical instrument manufacturers say they are committed in their efforts to regain bigger shares of the market. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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