Let’s hear it for the fantastic plastic instruments conceived in the Midlands that are making a big noise in the music business
Ten years ago, a small Midlands music publishing company took the decision to diversify with a vision to revolutionise the brass music instrument sector. The aim was to make affordable, durable, stylish instruments that delivered the same high quality sound with none of the problems of heavy and expensive traditional items.
Following the theory that the best ideas are often the most blindingly obvious ones, the plastic trombone – called the pBone – was born. Well, actually it was born three years after the original idea… because, as always, simplicity can be hellishly difficult to make a reality.
Today, the Warwick Music Group’s pBone has become the biggest selling trombone in the market with more than 150,000 finding homes since launch.
Single-handedly, the pBone has turned the declining trend in trombone sales on its head. Every 20 minutes, someone in the world picks up a pBone – one of the main reasons for a 15 per cent increase in world sales of trombones in the last three years. And there’s no doubting that the pBone has brought a younger profile to the sector, too.
The success has spawned a range of plastic instruments. In 2013 came the pBone mini, for smaller children to handle. And then the following year the world’s first all-plastic trumpet – the pTrumpet. July 2016 saw the launch of an entirely new musical instrument aimed at children aged three and over called the pBuzz – a brightly coloured alternative to first instruments such as the recorder. Over the next few months WMG will unveil a new plastic cornet (the pCornet) and a trumpet made of 50 per cent plastic and 50 per cent metal (the pTrumpet Hytech) to specifically target professional musicians.
“The keyword has always been accessibility with our instruments,” said WMG’s chief executive Steven Greenhall. “We determined that the trombone would be the easiest first brass instrument to make in plastic. We focused on it being very light, easy to play – especially for kids, durable so that when it was dropped in classrooms it wouldn’t need repairing, and we also wanted to make it fun in lots of different colours.”
The original idea for the plastic trombone came from Hugh Rashleigh, a product and design engineer who teamed up with Steven who had spent 10 years in the music industry in the US. “It seemed a crazy idea, but it made sense to us,” said Steven. “The trombone is the easiest instrument to make – it’s basically a horn with a slide – but it had been around basically untouched for 500 years.
“No one had made one in plastic and it took us three years to do the R&D with Hugh making prototypes in his shed at the beginning. On the outside it looks like a trombone but inside it is very different. The fact that we are both musicians meant we wanted to keep pushing the boundaries, and it proved to be worth it. It has been a big success.”
The instrument has been used on TV shows such as Britain’s Got Talent, at major festivals including Glastonbury and even at The Proms. The pBone and pTrumpet have both won leading industry awards, including the Music Teacher and British Plastics Federation awards. WMG now employs 18 people and is also involved in local partnerships and education outreach programmes with the likes of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. The business has claimed a number of major awards for innovative, including the Nectar Small Business of the Year for Innovation, Midlands Business Award for Innovation and the Future Champion title at the National Business Awards.
Bright to look at and fun to play, the plastic instruments have proved a big hit with kids and schools. A pBone will cost a school around £100 to buy, well under half the price of a conventional trombone producing the same sound quality. The pBuzz recorder alternative, which is made in the UK, is just £20.
“There are 17,000 to 18,000 primary schools in the UK with four-and-a-half million kids,” said Steven. “We see getting the pBuzz into more schools as one of the big growth areas, along with expanding the whole business internationally.” Right now, 85 per cent of trombones that children learn to play on are pBones. Along with the growing range of other instruments – including a design for a pFlute – the future looks a real blast for the plastic instrument makers.
The toughest market to crack will be getting the instruments into the hands of professional musicians in the UK and world-leading orchestras and bands. “It’s a notoriously traditional area,” said Steven. “But we’ll get there, I’m confident. We had a musician in one of the very top orchestras use one of our instruments in rehearsals and the conductor didn’t realise it wasn’t a brass instrument. The sound quality is as good, better actually, than brass.”
Nothing like blowing your own trumpet is there?….