When I was a student, and even well into my professional career, it was considered axiomatic that musical instruments manufactured in China were of low quality, made of inferior materials, suffered from limited availability of compatible repair parts, and were simply to be avoided by all serious musicians. I refused to allow such instruments to remain in my studio for very long when they showed up, and would still refuse an inferior instrument just as vigorously today. Such instruments are still easily found on eBay and even at your local big-box store, and it remains a reliable rule of thumb that if a “deal” on a new instrument seems too good to be true, it is.
Still, one can no longer paint with so broad a brush when considering instruments manufactured in China, as well as India and perhaps elsewhere in the developing world. We have already seen marked improvement in the instruments produced by a well-known Taiwanese maker in the past decade, and today collaborations between Western designers and manufacturers in mainland China are yielding instruments of acceptable quality, and in some cases rather high quality, with good customer service and availability of repair parts when needed. Examples include companies like Big Mouth Brass, Wessex Tubas, and John Packer’s collaborations with Chinese factories and designs by British makers Rath and Sterling. One can no longer responsibly refuse to consider such instruments without giving them a fair hearing, especially as prices for new instruments from American, European, and Japanese manufacturers are out of reach for many students. In my area of specialization, while many trombones from Western and Japanese manufacturers are relatively affordable, few students can afford to pay the high price tags for new euphoniums and tubas, which can run well in excess of $10,000. When a Chinese maker is offering an instrument of similar or perhaps just slightly lower quality for 30% of the price (or less), students would be foolish not to consider that instrument. One of my students recently purchased a new JP-Rath alto trombone; it, too, is of remarkably high quality. Given that for many students (particularly in a poorer state such as the one in which I live and teach) economic necessity dictates that instruments be purchased inexpensively or not at all, I find myself increasingly encouraging students to consider these instruments alongside the used instruments from more well-known makers that I always recommend.
I have changed my position on this not without at least a bit of sadness. After all, one of the reasons that instruments produced in the West cost more than those from the developing world is the vastly lower wages and benefits received by workers in those countries. By purchasing these instruments we can’t help but drive one more nail into the coffin of American manufacturing, a huge problem for our nation well beyond the musical instrument industry. And yet, like most American consumers, I purchase electronics, clothing, and other consumer goods with little consideration given to the country of origin. Is purchasing a musical instrument any different, assuming, again, that the instruments being considered are of acceptable quality? If I am willing to purchase an iPhone made in a factory filled with low-wage workers should I not consider a euphonium from a similar factory as long as the quality is sufficient? Would it not be hypocritical to not do so?
And thus, I don’t like it, but here I am. I still think that the higher end Western manufacturers have an edge over those in the developing world when it comes to producing top-quality instruments. My S.E. Shires trombones, for example, are made with quality, artistry, and adaptability not achievable by assembly-line workers overseas. But not every student can afford an instrument from a boutique manufacturer, nor does every student even need one. I hope that in the future the world economic system can find some equilibrium where wages and costs no longer prevent American students from purchasing American instruments (or those made in other countries paying similar wages and benefits). But given the choice between having an instrument and not having one (or having to take on additional debt to buy one, also an undesirable choice), I’m going to tell my students to consider these instruments. I will do so with confidence that they will be able to find affordable and quality instruments that will serve them well for many years, though not without more than a bit of sadness that the “flat world” has brought us to this.