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July 20, 2006 - Image 41

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2006-07-20

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

Business & Professional

Horning In

A Ferndale
business has
cornered the
oom-pah-pah
market.

George Cantor

Special to the Jewish News

T

here may not be 76 trombones in
Fred Marrich's back room.
But, man, has he got the tubas.
Dozens of them, enough to stock all the
marching bands in Michigan. Some are
brass and some are silver; some of them
have rotary valves and some have pistons.
Some are crafted in Switzerland, some in
Germany and some in China.
Marrich's Ferndale-based Custom Music
is at the high end of low brass instruments.,
He sells lots of euphoniums and bassoons,
too, and in an annex down the block he's
even got marimbas.
But he is the undisputed king of tubas,
the biggest dealer in that instrument in
North America. Musicians from around the
world fly in to consult and buy. Virtuosos
from almost every major symphony orches-
tra in the United States get their tubas from
his company.
"A high-quality tuba will sell for up to
$20,000," he says. "And the tubas we handle
are the best in the world. We make sure of
that.
"When we got into the business, it was
kind of haphazard. There was no set stan-
dard for tubas. There was no great demand,
either. I went to the top brass makers in this
country and they'd tell me, `I can sell 10 or
12 trumpets for what it would cost me to
make a tuba. Why should I bother?"
So Marrich looked overseas. It was the
early 1950s and Europe's musical craftsmen
were struggling. Much of their market had
disappeared in the devastation of World
War II and they still had not regained their
economic footing.
He signed exclusive agreements with
two of the finest tuba makers in the world
— Hirsbrunner in Switzerland and Meinl
in Germany. In return, he gave them financ-
ing to resume production and entree to the
American market.

So why tubas?
Marrich took over the music busi-
ness started by his father, Meyer Marrich.
Meyer's Music was already 34 years old
in 1950 and a Detroit institution among
educators and brass instrumentalists.
"We were a full service music store says
Marrich,"but I began to see that we had
lots of competition. So why not specialize in
the instruments that no one else is selling?
That's what led me to tubas and the other
low brass."
He didn't know it, but in the next few
years tubas and bassoons would undergo
a musical revolution. In the earliest days
of recorded jazz, the bass was often sup-
plied by a tuba. It has always been a staple
of marching bands. Ohio State still has an
entire ritual built around the tuba player
dotting the "i" in the script Ohio formation.
In brass bands, tubas provide the thun-
der. In symphonic music, however, tubas
and bassoons were always given a limited
and sometimes clownish role.
But in the early 1970s, a new generation
of serious composers began writing specifi-
cally for those instruments. The oom-pah-
pah was out. Extended solo passages, tuba
concertos and even chamber quartets were
in.
"If you wanted a music scholarship
to one of the top universities," says Sara
Schoenbeck, one of the top bassoonists in
America, "you went into the low brass. They
became the center of action among young
instrumentalists:'
Said Marrich, "We realized that if we
wanted to grow we had to find out what
these musicians wanted from their instru-
ments. So we began contacting the top edu-
cators and tubists in the field."
It is a difficult instrument to master
because of the wind required to sustain a
note. Wesley Jacobs, tubist for the Detroit
Symphony, once said that to play it success-
fully "you have to be something of an ath-
lete. It's a good idea to keep in shape."
Marrich consulted with Jacobs and
Robert Tucci, who played with the Munich
Opera Symphony. Tucci led him to Dan
Perantoni, professor of tuba at Indiana
University, and he became Marrich's most
trusted adviser and partner.
Together they devised the PT-6 model.
It became the standard for American sym-
phony musicians. "More tubists won their
chairs in American orchestras by playing

Fred Marrich

our PT-6 in competition than any other','
says Marrich.
When it became known that this flawless
instrument, produced by Meinl, was avail-
able only through Custom Music, Marrich's
company became the center of the tuba
universe.
Kevin Powers, the head technician at
Custom Music, says, "I have a customer who
flies in every year from Malaysia to have his
tuba repaired here. He doesn't trust any-
one else to do it. That says a lot about our
standing. It's a close-knit world among low-
brass players and they all trust us."
Marrich, a longtime member of Temple
Israel, employs only seven people in his
Ferndale operation. He is reluctant to dis-
cuss total sales but says he sells about 300
tubas in a typical year and that sales in that
instrument alone are "into the millions" of
dollars.
He expanded his market even further by
finding and encouraging tuba makers in
China, who produce lower-cost instruments
that are sold to schools.
"The tuba keeps evolving, too," he says.

"Many tubists now want a fifth valve on
the instrument. And there are significant
differences between tubas sold in Europe
and North America. We prefer a lower pitch,
which calls for a longer tuning slide and
fewer vibrations. Dr. Perantoni also devel-
oped an improved mouthpiece which is
now widely accepted."
The only cloud on the horizon is a short-
age of qualified tuba technicians. "I don't
know where they'll come from because it
involves getting your hands dirty and using
math',' says Powers. "Most of our young
people don't like to do either one. So the
field is wide open."
"The memory I most treasure," says
Marrich,"was sitting in Meinl's apartment
in Germany, sipping wine and him telling
me that it \vas important to him to deal
with a Jewish businessman because of what
had happened there. He emphasized that
he wanted me to know that, and I was quite
moved.
"Of course, he also served rabbit for
lunch, and that part of the experience I try
to forget." E

July 20 • 2006

41

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