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….