Moving a worldwide woodwind business to Riga
Bernd Schille on a humane business and musicians’ community that has to stick together
I first heard about Bernd Schille as a wind instrument repair specialist from many Latvian jazz musicians, before I met him at a jazz club I was working at, where he kept coming to so often he quickly became a regular. Always by the bar with a good view of the stage, he kept being very musically involved, especially when someone played saxophone or some other instrument I believe he has repaired or maybe even produced. We meet for a short break and a coffee. — «So what’s the media you’re writing for?» — asks Bernd, and I answer him «I’m not a journalist, I just want to tell people your story. I just want to tell them what you’re proud of.», and he keeps talking for an hour, until we run out of espressos and time.
So where do you come from and what has brought you to Riga?
I started playing music at an early age in South–West of Germany — played the piano, studied clarinet, and later on saxophone as well. Got a classical education, and then came up with a decision of becoming a professional musician. Then things have changed — during my studies my dream was to work as an active musician, and the only option for me as a classical one was to endup in an orchestra, symphonic or opera one. At that time the situation didn’t differ much: you had to play an audition, but there were less jobs than people who wanted to get them, a strong competition. Usually after your diploma you start going to auditions and there are some 100 people for one position, so you keep trying for a couple of years. If by the age of 30 you don’t get one, the invitations to auditions stop coming. It’s the time pressure, too. Then you have to decide what to do, and the only option is to teach. For me it was always clear I won’t teach. I can do that, I do workshops sometimes, people leave me some positive feedbacks, but I don’t like doing it.
So I thought — I really like music, I like instruments, I’m interested in technical stuff, so I decided to learn how to build music instruments. It’s a school which you have to attend for three years, practice and theory, then you take an exam and you have to work in a company for two years. Then you can do another year and have a master diploma, only then you can work on your own. That’s another few years before you have a permission to start, and you’re not actually experienced by that time. Then I have worked for about 6 years at my own small company repairing wood instruments, and then I moved to Switzerland, Zurich, as an employee in a quite big company, leading a department of woodwind repairs. Worked there for 3–4 years, got international connections with other companies, with manufacturers, and got an invitation to move to Boston, USA, to a flute making company. First of all, it was interesting to go to the US, spend almost 3 years and get this experience.
From there I moved to Montreal, Canada, because there was an old guy, well–known for saxophone repairs working with high level jazz musicians only. Worked for a few years there before I got an offer from Yamaha in the South of Tokyo, to move to their main factory to work at development of custom saxophones and flutes. After some 5 years I’ve moved to Yamaha Europe, they sent me to Antwerp in Belgium, and I was responsible for quality control for custom saxophones and high–end flutes. Then I went back to my own business, moved to Sweden to build my own instruments, and had the first contact with Latvian musicians there — they found me through the internet. It was very cheap and easy to travel from Stockholm to Riga, and once I started coming here, some Latvian musicians organised me some workshops and meetings at the Latvian Academy of Music. Then I got an idea — maybe Riga wasn’t a bad place to move to, and then almost 4 years ago I did.
It’s quite a lot, sounds really impressive. And Riga, after US and Canada and Sweden and Japan… A lot of countries, which in a way are higher developed than us. Don’t you regret that decision now?
No. And this is a question I’ve heard the most in Latvia. All sorts of people not knowing me keep asking — why Riga, after everything else? Of course, I had to learn how things work here. First of all, you have to understand that this is a small country and will always be one. This isn’t negative though — for me personally this whole thing in Latvia gives me more freedom than other countries. There’s nothing present here, you know. Noone comes and makes it easier for you. You have to do everything by yourself and work hard. And for me it’s a little bit easier than doing some other jobs, because I’ve always worked internationally: minimum 50% of all I do is international, the rest is in Baltic countries. And then you’re quite free to do things. One more reason — and that’s actually the most important reason for everyone who decides to leave a country and move to another one — you have to like it. You have to like all the positive things and accept all the negative things. If you don’t accept those, you’ll always complain. You have to see all different sides of Latvia to understand this country. And if you can understand it, you can decide whether you fit in or not.
The community here is small, everyone has more or less the same problems, is fighting to do stuff, so it’s important to get together and respect each other. Business has to be humane. Some people who decide on the future of the country, for example — they don’t understand how important education is. It is a huge art history for a small country of two millions people — that means a huge responsibility. We have a lot of big names, well–known conductors, pianists, singers, going world–wide. I see many interesting things happening in Riga, but they’re too much apart.
You know, I’m a guest in your country: if I don’t like it, I’m free to go. Not everything is crap, but it can be better for everyone. Everyone has his part to play in it, it’s not one person to change everything. I’ve found out that people here have less desire to think of a long–term result, they want instant results. But you have to make a decision now to change things in the long run. You cannot change big things tomorrow, it’s step by step. It’s also a plan for my business activities — it’s my personal wish to do this, I know how to do this, I have a lot of experience in different countries, a lot of skills. The other thing is also to be proud to do something in a country where nobody has done that before, with people who want to consume what you’re creating. Try doing something special. If everyone here in Latvia would have a bit more of an open mind… One teacher of mine has always said — if you do something good, if you have a good skill, are successful, you feel like that’s working — then talk about it. Of course, don’t show off, but if you’re good, you have to say it.
Little (in terms of a country) is not negative. Little means having some things that big countries don’t have. Little is exclusive, to some extent. Of course, you cannot put up a goal to create a big manufactory here, for example, that’s stupid, it will never work. But you can make very exclusive things that the others cannot do. We have to create our style, we have to create something small, little, exclusive, unique. The community here — if you talk specifically about jazz musicians — is small, but it’s running. Some people study outside, come back, establish connections, bring other people here, have concerts, and so on. It’s moving, but this brand name — Latvian jazz — has to sound like a brand name outside of Latvia as well.
So you repair instruments and produce the new ones as well. What of those gives you more pleasure?
I think everyone going in this direction likes to create something new with his name on it that the others like. That gives a good feeling. But I think it would be a huge mistake to say I’m only creating something new and not doing repairs, a mistake for two reasons: first of all, you learn from every instrument — every instrument is different, every musician who plays it is different, and you learn a lot. You both need each other strongly, and I will not give up on that.
All the things I do come from my life experience, but without the last three years in Latvia and people I’ve met this couldn’t have happened. I have lived in big cities and big countries, and sorry, I like it here most. It feels like I have to have an excuse to live here. But this is not true! This is a free country and I am a free man and I can go anywhere, no one can stop me! I can do what I want. But — sorry, I like it here! I have friends doing the same things as I do, but in New York. They have huge problems: to rent a place in New York for work, a tiny one, you have to pay 6–7 thousand dollars per month, and that’s almost impossible to make in this line of work, which means you are struggling. The same as many people in Riga struggle. Okay, you can proudly say: I live in New York. But I proudly say — I live in Riga! For me, it’s not that different.
So you’re talking about real customers you work with. Who are they?
80% of all my clients (new instruments and repairs — I repair saxophones, flutes, clarinets and oboes) are professional musicians. Baltics, South Europe — Greece, Spain, Portugal, from Belgium to the US. You only can serve professional musicians if your quality is good. You don’t need to explain much to a professional musician. Of course, I also help amateur musicians and students, that’s very important, that’s the next generation.
Talking about professional musicians — do you attend their concerts then?
As often as possible. I know so many of them, I could go to a concert every evening which is not possible, but I’m a frequent guest. It’s important not only because a musician is my client and I want to be friendly and just show up, or to make business — to me it’s important to see the musician, hear what he plays, how he plays it, because then I know a little more about what I can do with his instrument. That has to do with feelings, you need some experience for that. Especially if it’s a new client, if I have a chance to go to his concert before I do the repairs, I do that. One example: there was a guy interested in the alto sax of Riga Winds. This guy grew up in Latvia, Daugavpils, learned jazz saxophone, then moved to London. He studies in London now, is very active, reached out to me and told me he’s coming to Latvia and is really interested in trying out my new saxophone. He invited me to his concert, I came to listen, and saw exactly what he needs, so I could be prepared to give him exactly that. That is how I work. I want people to go out of Latvia and tell everyone — look, that is cool, he takes time to think of what I need, he’s interested in how I play, not just selling me a saxophone. You have to also be honest and sometimes tell a person he doesn’t need a new saxophone, he needs something else.
So you sometimes refuse to help people?
I don’t send anyone away, of course, but I say what I think. First of all, I feel better like this, because if you’re not absolutely honest, later the feeling is not okay. Sometimes it’s better to tell people you know they don’t need a new instrument. This way people will like us, trust us more. We all have that experience in life, right? You go to a shop, someone approaches you, talks clever, persuades you to buy something. Then you come home and regret you’ve bought it. But if someone tells you — Aleksandra, you don’t need this thing, you’re fine without it, explains to you why, then you go home happy, and only talk good about this guy. He gave you an honest, good feeling.
So that’s some professional listening you do. Do you think anyone without a musical education would be able to do your job? How does your musical education help?
Basically it’s necessary, but there also are some people who cannot play an instrument, but can do great in this job. Only very few though. I guess, that’s how everything works. Sometimes there’s just one outstanding talent who’s born with this. Musicians feel, if you understand me. They first talk about music, because it’s all they talk about in their life. You meet a musician, share a coffee with him, talk about music, recordings, and he wants to feel understood. If he doesn’t, he doesn’t want to talk further, it gets boring. And you can only understand him if you’re educated in music yourself, at least up to some certain level, and are deeply interested in it. And then people feel they don’t need to tell much, because I understand a lot already. Musicians and artists are very sensitive. Very deep. To show your art, you have to more or less prostitute yourself out in this very moment. You are very fragile. If you go up on stage to do something, people watch you, everyone sees your every mistake, they take in every weakness you have that evening. And their reaction can deeply hurt you, that’s always sensitive. If you allow a wrong or stupid reaction, you can easily hurt an artist. You cannot hurt a banker this quickly, because there are just numbers. You can understand this only if you have stood on the stage.
Do you prefer your instrument sounding pure or with some effects added up?
That’s not relevant to me. I make business with this. I have to forget about my personal preferences. I often attend classical and jazz concerts, and I don’t like many performers, professional ones, but that’s just the matter of my personal taste. Then we talk about respect. Sometimes a musician comes to me after the concert asking «Bernd, how did you like it?» And if it was professional, I can say — that was nice, it was not my style, but you did it professionally.
What music do you like yourself then? What recordings or live shows do you like attending in your spare time?
I’m completely open. It has to do with my mood — can be classic, can be quite stupid famous songs we have been listening to for 40 years already, like Frank Sinatra’s «My Way» or whatever else well–known. It just has to be the right time for the song. It’s good to be open to everything.
Does repairing or production of instruments differ much in terms of genre? Like — doing something for a jazz or heavy metal musician?
I don’t think there’s a big difference. I’ve been in contact with many different musicians, and I think it’s very important to talk about music. I’m not fixated on my instruments as well — I listen to a lot of piano music, violinists, pop musicians, electronic music.
Do you specifically focus on advertising, or does just word–of–mouth brings you clients?
In my case it’s always professional clients, who usually aren’t interested in any advertising, because they don’t believe in it. For me the best is social media, because people follow. I have many good clients today who have followed me for two years, and started to contact me only now. All my international clients are coming from Facebook. An instrument is very important to a professional musicians, and imagine a person from Los Angeles far away, putting his instrument in a box and sending it by post to Latvia! It’s a huge leap of faith to do this. We’ve never met in person, there was only Facebook.
If you had to pick one rule that leads you through life, what would that be?
It’s an important question. For me and my business, the best is to be honest and true. Being true means also saying what you think, keeping in mind that not everyone likes that. Trueness and trying to cooperate with people, being together, helping each other in life and business. Sometimes helping financially, if you can, of course. Talking of students, kids, we know what the financial situation in the Baltic countries is like — it’s not always easy. Young families, 2–3 kids, and parents say — okay, you can go to a music school, but it’s financially not easy for young families here. And sometimes something happens with the instrument, and money is an issue. Sometimes I’m ready to do it for half–price, that’s my understanding of how community works.
I’m living here for almost four years now, and it’s not too long. Riga Winds is the name I’ve created because of what Riga is. And people start recognising the name. I’ve started to give back what this city has given me, you know. I’m honestly proud to be here. In some other countries it’s more secure, with social things and financial things, but here there’s movement and life. We have to fight every day from the morning until the evening, but I’m proud to say we can do Riga Winds in Latvia.