By Cristina Schreil

Before establishing his international musical-instrument company, Qian Ni arrived in America, where the generosity of others proved pivotal. “If it weren’t for that music scholarship or that flute he was given as a young boy and the opportunities presented to him in life, we wouldn’t be here today,” says Ni’s daughter, Ping. Speaking from Eastman Music Co.’s home base in Los Angeles, she compares that flute from decades past to a program launched just last year. 

That idea—that the gift instrument is an initial step toward building a musical life—sits at the heart of the company’s La Scala program. La Scala, meaning “ladder” in Italian and evoking its building-block concept, began as a partnership with the Philadelphia Orchestra when Daniel Berkowitz, formerly of the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, moved to work there. The idea: Develop a special La Scala line of violins, violas, cellos, and double basses. For every instrument sold through partnered dealers, a student-model instrument will be given to a child in need.

Ping Ni likens the concept to that of Tom’s Shoes, wherein the company conducts a one-for-one donation. In practice, La Scala sale proceeds go into a kind of instrument bank managed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, which partners with local schools and organizations, assesses community needs, and directs the right instruments to the right places.

Since the launch in 2016, there have been 54 instruments donated across four Philadelphia schools: the Laura W. Waring School, KIPP West Philadelphia Preparatory Charter, Blaine Elementary School, and the All-City Philadelphia Orchestra. More instruments are slated to be distributed throughout Philadelphia in the fall, with more directed to the high-school level.

La Scala also just laid down roots in Boston. Johnson String Instrument Inc., based in Newton, Massachusetts, has teamed with several local El Sistema–inspired programs through its Johnson String Project, and about 20 La Scala instruments have been sold since the spring. The Boston connection is meaningful, as Qian Ni founded Eastman after graduating from Boston University.

“You can have a wonderful teacher, but that only goes so far if you have a really terrible instrument,” Ping Ni says. She clarifies that the sale of a La Scala instrument signifies a donation of a complete student-instrument outfit that includes a case, bow, setup, and strings. Especially for newly formed programs in schools that struggle with resources, eliminating the cost of dozens of instruments frees up schools to focus on paying faculty.

La Scala is the brainchild of Eastman president Saul Friedgood and Berkowitz, who helmed a similar instrument-donation venture while managing the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, an El Sistema program. Ni reports that the key was making a line with broad appeal and keeping prices relatively affordable. Eastman’s luthiers,
working in the company’s Beijing workshop, construct the La Scala instruments from seasoned German tonewoods. Luthiers apply an antique-style, multi-layer spirit varnish that Ni says hovers between not-too amber and not-too red.

Reinforcing the new partnership, two Philadelphia Orchestra members, bassist Joseph Conyers and violinist Amy Oshiro-Morales, offered feedback on prototypes. The resulting instruments, both in quality and price range, are geared toward high school–age players looking to take their instruments to the college level, says Ni. It’s tricky to convey the prices of La Scala instruments, as they’re all sold through different dealers, but Ni says they sell for around $1,500 for violins, $1,800 for violas, $4,000 for cellos, and $8,300 for double basses. Five dealers in the Philadelphia area carry the instruments. Since launching, 27 violins, 25 violas, 16 cellos, and 6 basses have been sold.

“You can have a wonderful teacher, but that only goes so far if you have a really terrible instrument.”

Ping Ni

Ni says the link between dealers, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Johnson String Project ensures that the donated instruments will fulfill needs in
the best possible way. “The orchestra knows where the best recipients would be. We don’t want to drive up to a school and drop off a box of instruments. Maybe that school isn’t ready for it.”

Naomi Gonzalez, manager of collaboration and access for the Philadelphia Orchestra, oversees the orchestra’s partnerships with area schools, assesses who needs instruments, and manages the instrument bank. She says the impact has been “tremendous” already. “Music is definitely a turn-around tool for a child,” she says, adding that this is the only instrument-donation program in which the orchestra is involved. Her stomping grounds are in the classroom, as a former conductor and orchestra teacher, and she stresses that La Scala ameliorates a real struggle. “You run into families all the time—they cannot afford to rent or purchase an instrument,” she says. Unlike younger students from kindergarten to eighth grade, who play on less-expensive, durable Eastman Model 80s and Model 100s, there are two bassists and soon a violinist in the All City Orchestra using La Scala instruments. “A lot of the students in the orchestra can’t otherwise afford a La Scala instrument,” Gonzalez says. Fortunately, the student models for the younger players seem sturdy. “For a whole year I don’t see pegs broken off or strings popping that you usually see,” Gonzalez adds with a laugh.

Gonzalez also spearheads master classes, where orchestra musicians visit students, and trips to Verizon Hall. Guest artists and composers also visit schools. It’s about maintaining an ongoing relationship, not a “drive-by deed,” she says.

String teacher Peter Oswald was hired to begin teaching at the Philadelphia Orchestra–partnered KIPP music program in the fall of 2016. Oswald is a cellist and has lived in Philadelphia for two years. He says it’s a good move to boost music education in this section of the city. Master classes, field trips, and artist visits help close a gap.

“West Philly is a very diverse place,” he relates, adding that about 99 percent of the students are African American and hail from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. “The vast majority have not gotten any string music and some of them no music at all,” he says. “There certainly are some really fantastic public schools in Philly but there are also a lot of failing schools and a lot of schools that don’t offer opportunities that these kids really should have.”

About 94 students at the fifth-grade level at KIPP took beginning string instruction, with a smaller core group of around 30 splitting into a more in-depth performing group. A second wave of donations around Christmas let some students take instruments home to practice—something Oswald emphasizes as a special privilege. The program expands through the eighth grade this fall. He adds he’s seen the impact of music programs on students, especially teens and preteens. “I think that having the option there is a really powerful thing,” he says.

Looking to the future, Ni hopes the program expands. “Instruments are one piece of the puzzle in the whole music-education system,” she says. “There’s also teachers and funding and even parents to some extent—all need to be onboard.” 

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