Copyright ©2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

In Elkhart, Indiana, strike up the band means more than making music, it means making musical instruments. Although the boom times are long past, instrument manufacturing has been a part of the city's economy for more than a century.

In this, our second in a series of reports on Elkhart, NPR's Cheryl Corley finds unemployment at nearly 15 percent and tough competition from imports, yet signs of revival among Elkhart's instrument manufacturers.

(Soundbite of music)

CHERYL CORLEY: The band room where students are practicing 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 are playing were made here in town. That's part of the musical tradition that once made Elkhart the Band Instrument Capital of the World.

Over the years, the city has been home to 60 instrument manufacturers. Now there are only three major companies. Elkhart may no longer be the world leader. Still...

Mr. JOHN STONER (President and CEO, Conn-Selmer): It's the band instrument capital of the U.S.

CORLEY: John Stoner is company president of Conn-Selmer. The company'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, more than half of them in Elkhart. This Indiana industry town has been clobbered over the years with plant closings and consolidations. But two other legendary instrument makers remain: Gemeinhardt Flutes and E.K. Blessing, both with much smaller staffs.

Stoner says Conn-Selmer has survived the turmoil of this latest recession by cutting salaries, shutting plants down for a day and laying some people off.

Mr. STONER: Because of the skill sets required to manufacture an instrument -as far as the labor and the 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.

CORLEY: Conn-Selmer makes more than 50,000 instruments a year. Student and intermediate instruments are the bulk of sales and account for most jobs. But the company also makes more expensive and higher-quality professional instruments.

(Soundbite of machinery)

Mr. STONER: There's probably 11,000 different variations of a professional trumpet.

CORLEY: The music on the factory floor is more about mechanics.

(Soundbite of machinery)

CORLEY: With grinding buffer wheels and blowtorches, workers turn flat sheets of brass into a trumpet bell, or pull the holes up in the metal for the student flutes designed by flautist James Galway.

Before the instruments are shipped off to dealers, musicians who are called testers play them to make sure they're in tiptop shape.

(Soundbite of music)

CORLEY: A big challenge here is a familiar one for many American companies. In this case, an influx of instruments manufactured in countries like China, where the labor force is paid a dollar per hour or less. It's forced Elkhart companies to change their ways, usually by sending production offshore or by shutting their doors. Add to that, tight state budgets and their effect on school music programs.

(Soundbite of music)

CORLEY: In Concord High School's band room, music director Gay Burton says there's always the chance that music programs might have to be scaled back, even in Elkhart.

Ms. GAY BURTON (Music Director, Concord High School): When the cuts are so deep, you just can imagine it's going to affect everything in the school.

(Soundbite of machinery)

CORLEY: The buffing room is busy at E.K. Blessing, an Indiana mainstay since 1906. A small cadre of employees - 20, mostly part-timers - turns out the instruments here.

Massachusetts-based Powell Flutes bought E.K. Blessing last year, lured in part by Elkhart's ready 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 expand, creating 22 new full-time jobs by 2012 with an expectation of many more to come.

Mr. STEVE RORIE (General Manager, E.K. Blessing Company, Inc.): It's not necessarily the amount of jobs.

CORLEY: Blessing's general manager, Steve Rorie, says what's garnered the most attention is Blessing's decision to forgo any importing of musical instruments.

Mr. RORIE: We've committed to Elkhart again and we've committed to American manufacturing. And that certainly has seemed to strike an emotional chord with so many, many people. And the enthusiasm has been - it's been difficult to ignore.

CORLEY: County and state tax credits and $2.5 million in federal stimulus money will help 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.

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

Mr. RORIE: Certainly, there's going to be some resurgence. But will there be enough to truly say Elkhart is back as clearly the leader in musical instrument manufacturing? That's a difficult one to predict.

(Soundbite of music)

CORLEY: Even so, as Blessing toots more of its own horns, it and Elkhart, Indiana's other musical instrument companies say they are committed in their efforts to regain bigger shares of the market.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: