I recently returned from a productive trip to China. I was expecting to see some cool things on this trip but was surprised at how a trip like that causes one to rethink assumptions.
The first thing I did once I arrived in Shanghai was the MUSIC CHINA trade show. I worked worked with my friends from Tenon and Chateau. We had a glass enclosed booth and showed many people our tools and techniques. Since last year, it was apparent that the MusicMedic.com booth had been gaining in popularity, as many people told me they were excited to visit the booth it was apparent our booth was a destination. Ron and the guys at Chateau were great fun to hang with and I was excited to see how much Ron had learned about woodwind repair. Ron, with Chateau saxophones, gave tool demonstrations and shared his great wealth of knowledge with trade show attendees. I'm looking forward to his visit to the Sax ProShop and MusicMedic.com to learn about our shop, processes, and our tools!
Following the show, I taught a clinic at Mr. Tan's shop, BJ Music, in Qingdao. Mr. Tan is great to work with because he's very open and willing to share his ideas with myself and others. The last time I was in Qingdao, I went to Mr. Tan's original shop. His growing business just opened a second store and I was lucky enough to be able to teach my clinic at it. Congratulations, Mr. Tan!
Check out Mr. Tan's shop here, if you're in Qingdao make sure to stop at DJ Music.
After my clinic, I visited a lot of different factories, playing as many different horns as I could and looking at the manufacturing processes. It seemed that each factory had different specific things that they were doing at an extremely high level. One factory made wonderful necks, another great keys, another had the best looking finishes. I examined individual parts, a large variety of finishes, the body manufacturing process, buffing, lacquer, plating and various degrees of manufacture from we make everything to we assemble.
I saw a lot of creativity in the various factories on their manufacturing processes. Some factories were more up-to-date with CNC machines and automated machines, with few people involved. At other factories, the saxophones were largely hand-made, with rooms full of people shaping keys by hand on grinders. The end result, the playability, did not seem to change greatly from the automated factory to the hand-made factory. First I found that odd. I came to the conclusion that, even though there is creativity in the manufacturing process, the obvious lack of creativity in the design of the saxophone is holding it back. It is as if the design of the saxophone is set in stone and folks are working to produce that thing faster and better.
The good news is that they are succeeding. The instruments were not all bad and the glaring issues I used to associate with Chinese instruments was not the norm. I even found one instrument I could not resist. So I bought it. I bought it as much for the unique instrument and the unique material as the owner of the factory. Truly a fantastic guy with a fantastic story.
Who knows, you might be seeing more of these instruments. I also found a factory that makes good copies Selmers, Yamaha, and yanagisawa; all under the same roof.
Looking at the horns in china makes me revisit the question, "What makes a student horn?"
When you look at the method of manufacture that becomes a difficult question. In the past, manufacturers did not market an instrument for any subset of people: they made one model of saxophone as best as they could with the resources available, manufactured it, and sent it to market. When music education was put into schools, it created a demand for easily made and affordable instruments for students.
In the past, student horns may have the connotation of being cheaper, lower quality, or having fewer features and keys. Professional horns, on the contrary, a higher quality, more expensive instrument with special features, keys, and different finish options. In this day, the line between a “student” or “intermediate”, and “professional”, is tough to draw. There are many inexpensive and low quality instruments available with many of the keys and features associated with professional brands, available in any number of different finishes. Some instruments marketed specifically to students are of higher quality than some of those inexpensive copies. On my recent factory visits, I saw many horns that were copies of well-known professional horns, including the Yamaha Custom Z and YAS-62, the Selmer Series II, a modified Series II, and Yanigasawa, varying substantially in quality from one place to another.
If I put my name on one, would it be a student or a pro horn? I prefer to think it would be a traditional horn.
At the Sax ProShop, we are currently working towards designing an entirely new saxophone. With no plan to market, we're just trying to make something great because we have ideas. These instruments will not be "traditional."
We have talked about offering our players a good "traditional" instrument. That idea is called The Alto Project. It's the effort to make an already good instrument, an alto, even better, through working with the manufacturer to make changes in addition to modifying and improving it at the Sax ProShop. Would it be a pro horn, a student horn or just a traditional horn? That's a good question.
So this year, the trip to Shanghai and around, brought back questions, new friends, some visits with old friends, potential markets and potential products. As usual, I know I'm lucky to have such great people in the shop at MusicMedic.com who give me the freedom and peace of kind to venture off free from worry.