When Qian Ni, an accomplished flute player from Beijing, founded Eastman Strings in 1992, he never imagined that over the course of 20 years, the company would grow from a small business operated out of the back of his car into a global music supplier. A recent graduate of Boston University’s music program, Ni was simply doing what he knew and loved: Representing some of China’s best violin makers in the U.S. market.
“I would load up my car with their instruments and drive from city to city selling them to violin shops and music stores,” Ni recalls. “Those that didn’t buy from me gave me excellent advice.”
Ni took that advice and continued to build his company, one customer at a time. In 1994, he made a strategic decision that would set the stage for Eastman’s dynamic expansion over the next two decades: rather than simply distributing musical instruments, Ni decided to open his first workshop on the outskirts of Beijing. “The top two luthiers I worked with then are still managing our string shops today,” Ni says with pride. “We have been lucky to attract so many talented people over the years.”
The company, now named Eastman Music Company, quickly earned a reputation for quality among its customers. Having entered the music products industry through the orchestral strings sector, where Ni saw a need for higher quality student and step up instruments, Eastman embraced its reputation as a manufacturer that could offer its customers unbeatable prices without compromising on materials or craftsmanship.
“Others looked to China for cheap products, but I always felt that we had to focus on quality if we were going to be successful over the long term,” Ni says. His commitment to producing superior products paid off. By 2001, Eastman had become the leading supplier of stringed instruments in the United States.
In 2002, Eastman made its first leap outside of the orchestral instrument sector by displaying two archtop guitars at the Winter NAMM show. Today, their guitars are displayed in boutique shops throughout the world, and compare in quality to the most respected names in the industry. That milestone was followed by a spate of expansion. Eastman purchased America’s oldest flute company, William S. Haynes, in 2004. The next year marked Eastman’s entry into the brass business via a unique partnership with professional trumpet and trombone maker S.E Shires of Boston, followed by the acquisition of one of China’s premier brass manufactures. Last year, Haynes upped the ante by building a new best-in-class flute-making facility just outside of Boston.
But that’s not all. Eastman also operates another flute-making workshop in Beijing, where the company’s student and Amadeus flutes are produced. “The collaboration between our two shops under the leadership of the makers at Haynes has been nothing short of incredible,” Ni says.
Not surprisingly, 2011 has been another busy year for Eastman. The company consolidated its U.S. operations into one facility in Pomona, Calif., and in October completed the purchase of a low brass factory in Tianjin, China, in keeping with Eastman’s philosophy of owning the factories where its products are manufactured.
“We have been incredibly fortunate to have a small but incredibly supportive network of dealers who are truly partners in our business,” stated Saul Friedgood, Executive Vice President. “The recent acquisition of the low brass factory will enable us to improve our quality and our dealers will undoubtedly be able to represent this well for us in the marketplace.”
Earlier this year, Eastman took its woodwind business to the next level by striking a partnership with China’s largest reed maker, to introduce a new line of reeds. Although the company is the largest domestic supplier of reed instruments in China, it’s virtually unknown outside of the country. After hearing about the success that Eastman had working with an associate, Ni was approached to discuss the prospect of working together.
“The reeds were impeccably made, but we felt that in order for them to be the best reeds in the world, the cane itself needed to be better quality,” Ni says. Eastman secured a long-term exclusive source in the Var region of southern France, widely regarded as the best in the world for growing reed cane.
“Now we have reeds that compete with anything on the market at any price point,” Ni says. “We offer an incredible value to our customers. I believe this is going to be the next really big thing for our company.”
Judging by Eastman’s growth over the past 20 years, however, it’s certainly not the last.Company History.
Eastman Strings was founded in 1992, yet it is already an integral part of the long and glorious history of one of the most fascinating musical traditions the world has known. Through our violin and bow making activities, we at Eastman Strings are attached to a tradition nearly 500 years old, and we strive to maintain a level of artistic and commercial achievement worthy of our predecessors.
The history of the violin family is fascinating and complex. It has all the elements of a great story, and our place in that story tells a lot about how we view the importance of what we do. There are many books and websites that offer extensive information and speculation about the history of violinmaking, and it is not our goal to repeat all of this information here. Let it suffice for us to pick up the story in the late 19th century, when economic and social factors came into play to influence the art of violin making and bring it into the modern age.
In the mid to late 1800's, the industrial revolution was well under way, bringing with it a rise of urban culture, increase in buying power for the middle class, and expansion of international trade. A generation of comparatively well-educated and affluent people turned its interest to music making, many as a pastime, and others as a vocation. No longer merely the entertainment of the noble and wealthy classes, classical and various forms of popular and folk music were embraced by ordinary people, and they wanted not only to hear it, but to play it themselves. Several different types of instruments grew in popularity, both mechanical devices such as player pianos, music boxes of ingenious designs, and other basically self-playing instruments, and more traditional instruments such as pianos, harmoniums, and violins. The violin in particular was the instrument of choice for more amateur and professional musicians than any other.
Imagine the difficulty of would-be music makers who were faced with a severe shortage of instruments on which to play. The great master instruments of the 17th and 18th centuries were already collectible and unaffordable by this time, and modern instruments were also relatively rare and expensive. Several savvy violin makers figured out a solution: they created master workshops where they trained specialist wood carvers to do much of the time consuming work of violin making for them. The masters trained the workers, oversaw their work, and participated in the assembly and varnishing of the instruments. By putting much of the work in the hands of specialized workers who were not highly-paid masters, they were able to create high quality hand-made instruments at reasonable cost. As a result, violins were both available and affordable to musicians who lacked the budgets to buy vintage instruments, but who nevertheless wanted good quality violins on which to play. It sounds obvious to us now, but it was a major change for both violin making and for the world of music in general. In former generations, only a small caste of professional musicians, working primarily for the European courts and churches, were able to play instruments (which were often provided by their employers). Now, nearly anyone could acquire a hand-made violin and learn to make music.
Violins became both available and affordable to musicians who wanted good quality instruments on which to play.
All of this was important not only for the future of violin making, but also for music in general. Think of the creative power, not to mention the surge in popularity of classical music, that resulted from increased access to the instruments on which this music is made!
During this period, which lasted from the late 19th century until the middle of the 20th, hand-made violins and bows were available in a wide range of qualities and prices. The least expensive were really quite awful, but they served their purpose. Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward sold cheap outfits in their catalogs, while fine violin shops sold the better workshop instruments and bows, often relabeling them with their shop name, or with incorrect or fictitious maker's labels. (Many a person, when cleaning out a closet or attic, has been thrilled by the discovery of a violin by the great Cremonese master Stradivarius. Thinking that they have made their fortunes, nearly all of these people are later disappointed to learn that the instruments they possess are inexpensive German or Czech copies with facsimile Stradivarius labels. The origin of the Strad is found in the practice of many makers who put cheaply printed Stradivari labels in their export instruments.)
European workshops continued to hand-make instruments and bows up until the middle of the 20th century. Though it is far from the greatest tragedy resulting from World War II, the war brought about major changes in the business of violin making. Many violin makers were killed in the violence. Workshops were destroyed, as were entire towns. Europe itself was rearranged in the aftermath of the war. These facts combined to completely alter violin making in the late 20th century. First, many of the German makers who had been living in the German areas of Czechoslovakia, at one time major producers of instruments, found themselves no longer welcome in their former hometowns. They were evicted from their homes and workshops and forced to emigrate to the West. Much of Europe, including a large part of Germany, fell under communist Soviet rule, which had a bad effect on production and trade. May of the former East German and Czech makers who moved to the West set up a new violin making colony in the town of Erlangen, where they and their descendants work to this day. Along with their geographical relocation, another major change instituted at this time was the automation and mechanization of the violin making process.
Beginning after World War II, essentially all student stringed instruments were largely machine-made, with hand work comprising little or none of the process. This means that, among musicians who began studying after the war, nearly all started on machine-made instruments of questionable quality. Think about it: generations of string players never knew what it was like to play a good instrument until they were advanced enough to invest in an expensive old one.
In recent decades, several factors have revived the flagging violin craft. Very important in inspiring change was the huge success of the Suzuki Method in popularizing study of stringed instruments. The large number of string programs and private studios found today owe a great deal to this phenomenon.
The next big change that made a difference in violin making was the opening of China to commerce with the West. For many years, China had an isolationist attitude both culturally and economically. (Even so, a state-run factory supplied violin outfits in large quantities. The infamous Skylark instruments that they made have done much to damage the reputation of Chinese instruments, and the negative effects are still being felt by a new generation of talented, dedicated makers!)
In 1992, Qian Ni, who had come to the United States from China to study music, founded Eastman Strings. In the beginning, he and his two musician colleagues bought instruments from Western-trained violin makers from their home town in China, but before long, they saw that a different approach was needed. Mr. Ni hired a group of established master violinmakers, and with their help, he established a large master violin workshop devoted to the handcrafting of instruments one of the first the world had known since the first half of the 20th century. In the short time since this workshop was founded, the reputation of Eastman Strings instruments for tonal quality and craftsmanship excellence has become a worldwide standard. After establishing the instrument making workshop, Qian Ni went on to found a bow making workshop based on the same principals. In both workshops, master makers train and oversee talented woodworkers to create some of the world's finest student, step-up, and professional instruments and bows.
Today, the instrument and bow making workshops of Eastman Strings operate in precisely the same manner as late 19th century European workshops. They have virtually no power tools aside from the band saws used to cut out the necks and the outlines of the tops and backs of instruments. Chisels, knives, gouges, and scrapers, in the hands of outstandingly gifted craftspeople, are the primary tools used to create these modern instruments and bows, using methods centuries old. Thanks to Eastman Strings, string players today have advantages unknown to earlier generations: quality instruments, bows, and cases available world-wide at affordable prices.
An exciting new chapter in the history of violin and bow making is being written in our own time. We at Eastman Strings are excited to be contributing to it through both our revival of traditional Old World methods, and our pioneering of new materials and methods in the construction of bows and cases. We invite you to join us in the making of musical history.