In many of our local music institutions, from local schools to university drum corps, large quantities of expensive percussion instruments and supplies are available. But, unknown to those using them, many of these instruments have been manufactured internationally with global and often strained resources. The consumer’s of these products are unaware of the processes of production necessary for the equipment’s construction and the resulting socio-environmental impacts.
Alex Smith, founder of Jim Nugent Instrument Works, wants to change that. An active member of the music community either as an educator, performer, or a student, he has noticed that instrument maintenance and craft have been completely divorced from the modern music curriculum.
As August’s Hatching winner, Alex hopes to build a company that will bridge that gap between the musician and the instrument while at the same time, saving the endangered materials used to create these instruments.
The Problem Being Solved
Jim Nugent Instrument Works seeks to reconnect the makers and players of instruments with the natural resources used to create them. Specifically the marimba- an instrument made from the rare and endangered rosewood.
The idea for the business revolves around the production processes and resource consumption in the music instrument industry, and the resulting socio-ecological and cultural consequences these practices might present to our music community. The company offers affordable marimbas crafted with local resources, rather than the rare rosewood, and sustainable production processes. Also, patrons are given the opportunity to participate interactively in a given instrument’s construction, connecting them with the materials and labor required for its craft.
— Allison M. Monroe (@allyspoon) August 27, 2015
Where The Idea Came From
“Musical instruments often show up in boxes,” says Alex, “requiring very little assembly. It’s rare that a consumer knows the maker, the materials, or the labor required to make them.”
So, Alex asked himself, “If this musical object is allowing us to perform our profession as musicians and educators, shouldn’t the relationship between the musician and their instrument be one of a deeper connection?” In considering this disconnect, the marimba, an instrument primarily made from such a rare resource, stuck out to Alex. The lengths required to get an instrument made of rosewood and the carbon footprint the process leaves behind, led Alex to pursue alternatives to rosewood that could be sustainably consumed and locally obtained. Alex adds, “In addition to the more sustainable materials on my instruments, the tools in my shop are 95% reclaimed. In fact, the company is named after Jim Nugent from Holt, MI who recently passed away and whose tools I’m now using.”
Alex is excited to step into a field that is largely untapped. “As of now,” says Alex, “there are no percussion instrument companies that make a dedication to more sustainable production processes and materials a part of their company mission.” As a smaller business, he is also able to cater specifically to the wants and needs of the consumer- something that large-scale businesses cannot do. “At the same time,” he adds, “There are only a handful of successful and full-time marimba makers in the country. This fact presents both a challenge and an opportunity.”
Alex is reaching out to a wide, yet specific, range of customer. His target customer is the academic percussion community and those affiliated with it. He makes affordable and practical products for middle and high school band and orchestra programs and also college schools of music, professional ensembles, community bands, drum corps, winter drumlines, and college professors of composition. He provides unique and experimental instruments these programs can’t get anywhere else.
“Setting up my shop has been a challenge,” says Alex. Though it’s helped that he’s been able to use funds from winning the MSUFCU Running Start Competition to buy many of the woodworking tools he needed. The next hurdle for Alex is getting a TIG welder. “This is the last and most expensive tool I have to purchase. The Hatching Award will be a huge help in accomplishing this.”
Alex has been surprised to see that, “People seem to be pretty interested in the weird alternative materials and experimental designs I’ve been messing with on my instruments.” Alex has used multiple, experimental materials to create marimbas including, glass and Michigan barn wood from a fallen barn in Eaton Rapids. The end pieces are supported by reused rocking chair spindles. “The idea that an instrument (or at least a marimba) can be visually customized is something that seems to be interesting for some people,” he says.
All of Alex’s funding has come from awards and grants. “It’s been a lot of work and a difficult process,” he says, “but I’ve learned a lot.” He’s had funding from, the MSU College of Music, MSU Graduate School, MSUFCU Running Start Competition, Michigan Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program 2014 &2015, and The Hatching.
In one year, Alex would like to say he’s sold one marimba. “I have already sold a cajon and two sets of custom tuned outdoor wind chimes, but the marimba is my big ticket item.” It takes the longest to make, so Alex knows it may take time to grow production. While he is doing this on the side for now, in addition to his other professional work, he hopes that in 5 years he’s selling enough marimbas to support this as a full-time career.
“I’m still pretty new,” says Alex. “So, I don’t know if I should be giving advice!”