Elkhart: Gilda’s Homecoming

As I mentioned in my previous blog, I met a man named Robert while I was out on trick or treat night.  He works for Conn-Selmer as head of maintenance.  He invited me over to take a tour of the place, how could I resist that! When I left Angola on Monday (the 4th) I thought I would go up to Battle Creek Michigan, head over to Kalamazoo at night, and stop somewhere along the way to Elkhart.  I figured I would get there on Tuesday morning. All I ended up doing was going in a huge circle.  I should have just gone straight to Elkhart. 

When I got to Battle Creek, after finding what I think to be the only place I could play there, the restaurant was playing music over the loud speaker.  Not wanting to waste any more time, I got over to Kalamazoo.  I must have been in the wrong part of town, I don’t know- but I didn’t feel to safe there.  I mean no disrespect to the people who there, I just wasn’t feeling it.  I figured on getting down to Elkhart before they closed.  I got there just short of too late.  When I got there, I dialed Robrt’s extension at the door and he came to let me in.  He told me he was just about to punch out and go home.  He asked me if I had Gilda and of course I did.  There was a man still there who has worked there for over 40 years! Robert wanted me to show him Gilda, so I did.  He looked at her with such reverie and confirmed for me that all of that engraving was done by hand.  Unfortunately, they no longer make the saxophones there, they are made in Paris now and shipped over.  

For the next 90 or so minutes, Robert took me around the factory and showed me how the clarinets, flutes, bassoons, and xylophones are made.  He maintains the machines that make all of the instruments.  He kept telling me, “I don’t know much about instruments, my kids play sports!” Now, maybe I didn’t get the”Grand Tour” but I got the BEST tour! Robert was funny and very knowledgeable about everything that goes on in that factory.  We were in the South Factory, they make the brass instruments in the North Factory.  As I mentioned, I got there late and it was all locked up. All the stuff he showed me in the was amazing.  They still use machines that they used over 40 years ago! Certain things have been updated for consistency and production, but I can tell you, from what I saw, they are no longer “stamping” things out.  A lot of the keys  are now cast into a mold. There was so much information he gave me, I can’t remember all of it.  Most of the pictures I took were on my phone and didn’t really come out, they are pretty blurry.  

Robert was telling me about the wooden clarinets.  They make the Selmer, obviously, and a line of Julian Bliss clarinets from a wood called grenadalia.  It is a wood from Africa that takes 100 years to mature.  It is also so dense it doesn’t float.  I didn’t get to see one completely finished but I did get to see the evolution of the bell of a clarinet, it takes about 4-6 months to do because after each step, it has to sit for a certain amount of time.  I also was able to some of the bodies of several clarinets.  It is really amazing to see these before any work is done on them.  Robert explained each step they take to make these- and he says he doesn’t know about instruments!
Evolution of a bell to a clarinet 

I was/am so grateful to Robert for staying for all of that extra time to show me around. He could have just shown me that first room and I would have been happy. As I said he took me around for 90 or so minutes and not only explained what “they” do, he also talked about what he does. I learned a bit about machinery and water cutting! So, Robert- Thank you so much for having Gilda and me there! I wish you and your family a most wonderful Holiday Season!
Conn-Selmer

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