l to r: Steve Lewis, Dietmar Dürk, Jacob Medlin, Felix Cantesanu, Ion Balu, on their way to Venice Beach during IHS LA 2015.
Kristina Mascher-Turner: Ion, I can imagine you in your room as a kid, coming up with inventions based on whatever was at hand. Have you always had the urge to create new things?
Ion Balu: When I was six years old, I was sent to a special music school run by the Romanian communist government. I lived in a dorm along with other students, so we didn't have our own private space. I remember very clearly my visits back home, which averaged to about two and a half months a year. Once, I made a very basic, simple radio, and I used my mom's clothes line as an antenna. I made a tiny hole in the window frame, and late at night I would pull in a wire to my radio, and I would just sit there for hours transfixed listening to faraway radio stations. I should mention that under the communists we were so isolated from the world, that it's not even funny. Imagine North Korea now, but with absolutely no computers, internet, cell phone etc. This was the 80's. So, listening to random AM stations was a very cool way (for me) to connect to the outside world.
KMT: Would you say that growing up in a different culture has encouraged you to think outside of the box? If so, how?
IB: Definitely! I think the sheer lack of tools or information helped us come up with extremely creative solutions to problems that would arise. Nowadays, we have the "interwebs", and you can Google anything and basically come up with a solution. Not then. I remember once our football got punctured, and there was no option to buy a new one, I walked around the city and found a shoe repair shop that gave me some contact cement and some leather remnants. I easily patched up the ball.
Another time, I bought an electric guitar, and I completely reshaped the design using just very basic tools. A hack saw, sandpaper, and some auto body filler. I took it to a auto body shop to paint it, and the dude there was mesmerized at how good the finish was, and he offered me a job on the spot, saying something like, "You can make a lot of money fixing dents on cars...". I'm glad I didn't take that job and stayed with my music, otherwise I would've never been here now.
KMT: How did you come to make your first mute? Describe your work space and available materials.
IB: I won a job with the Memphis Symphony in the spring of 2002. I started playing with them in September, and by October I realized I needed a professional mute. I was playing 4th horn, and that none of the mutes out there sounded really good in the low register. Plus, I was so poor at the time, that I had absolutely had no money to buy one; so I decided to make one. I remember the night driving back home, from downtown Memphis across the bridge into Arkansas, where I lived. I called everyone and told them how I'm going to make the best mute in the world. Most of the people said something like "lol, good luck with that," including my own family, but this only made me more determined to succeed. I was married at the time to Jennifer, my ex-wife (thank you for being supportive!) and we were living in a trailer park in Jonesboro, Arkansas. I remember clearly how one day she came home and went to the bathroom and was very surprised by the giant disaster in there. In my attempt to keep the trailer clean, I decided to work in the bathroom, and that day I used a high-speed router (one of the very few tools I had handy) to shape the bottom part of the mute from a beautiful log I found outside. The amount of dust in there can only be described in inches. It was everywhere!!! It took us a few hours to vacuum and clean, but at least that day I made some real progress. With the mutes it was all trial and error. I wanted to make DAT mute that would sound great in all registers, and after about a week, I made it. I clearly remember thinking how to make the tuning system inside. It basically needed two cylinders sliding one inside other. I saw the toilet paper roll that was about finished and picked it up and looked through the roll. Eureka!!! I took a second roll and completely unrolled it until it was only the cardboard tube left. I cut it and re-glued it at a slightly smaller diameter, and voila: two cylinders sliding inside one other. The tuning system was born. If you look inside your mute you will see that the diameter of the tunings system inside is about the same diameter of a toilet paper roller. We make them now out of wood veneer because it helps with the sound projection. But also, that would be a lot of toilet paper to waste! Today's mutes are not much different from that very first mute, just better materials and finish.
KMT: How would someone who is interested in building instruments and equipment find the training they need?
IB: It's very easy, and I encourage anyone and everyone to try. There is always room for a good one at the top.
Basically, all you need is tools, creativity, hard work, and lots of determination to succeed. For me, making horns was completely new. I didn't have time to study with anyone, nor did I want to. I wanted to discover for myself how to bend tubes, how to solder, and how to cut a bell. It is very, very important not to let anyone see your work until it's finished. Don't rush into showing people your intermediary work, with a poor design or a messy soldering job, claiming it's ready. The first impression counts extraordinarily. I remember it took me about two years of working until I let anyone even look at the work I did, much less play my horn. Quality must prevail, and that will bring you great satisfaction and a good reputation.
KMT: What was it like balancing a career as a performer with your business? What told you it was time to leave the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and go full-time with your atelier?
IB: Balancing playing as a professional with running a successful business was pretty challenging. Most of the time I would work all day on mutes or horns, then around 6PM I would stop, eat a little bit, take a shower, and then drive to the rehearsal.
I won the MSO audition mostly because of the Beethoven 9 horn solo. They gave me a tenured position immediately after the end of first season, the last concert, which was Beethoven 9, and then nine years later we had Beethoven 9 again. The first few rehearsals for the last concert with them were a bit stressful and hard (as I don't take beta-blockers), but I nailed the solo in concert and I immediately knew that it was time to go out in glory. I took the year off at the end of 2010 season and on 11/11/11, I happily presented my resignation and my many thanks for being part of an incredible orchestra who is also playing in a world class concert hall. If you ask yourself why I choose 11/11/11 to resign, is because I wanted to remember the date.
KMT: How many mutes did you make altogether?
IB: I have no idea how many mutes I have made. In the first year I knew I made an exceptional mute, but how many can I sell, so no need to keep count, right?
In my second year sales started to pick up, but hey, it's not like I'll make a career out of this, so why bother counting. In the third year as sales increased quite a bit, I was like...uuuggghhh. It appeared that is was too late to start counting.
I think we have made around 4000-5000 mutes, but that is for all brass instruments, not just horn.
KMT: What material has been the hardest to obtain? Do you have any bizarre stories about chasing after a supplier?
IB: I vowed from the beginning to buy only American made materials, so getting a constant quality was not hard. One funny story: I import the abalone from overseas (you can't find American made abalone, as it's a pretty exotic material), so I started with about 4 different colors. But every time I would order new stock, the supplier kept sending me different colors! That's how we ended up having 18 different available abalone colors.
KMT: What's the best thing about being your own boss?
IB: The best thing about being your own boss is the liberty that you have in making decisions. I would recommend to anyone who starts any business to go it alone. Business should absolutely not be done with best friends or family, as conflict will definitely appear when business is down, and finger pointing will destroy relationships. It's not worth it. Good friends are very hard to find, and they should be treasured as such.
KMT: I read on your website that you had a near-death experience ten years ago that changed you and your thinking in a profound way. Can you share something about this with our readers?
IB: On Christmas of 2005, my girlfriend, Lisa, and I flew to Romania to see my mom. We had a near death experience with CO2 poisoning that was both dramatic and life changing. This is a very long story that can take many pages to write. We were saved by my best friend, Nic, who is now visiting every summer. Great guy and we should collectively thank him for all the newest inventions I made. Without him saving us there would have been no stop mutes, tuba mutes, Wagner tuba mutes, trumpet mutes, Euphonium mutes, the Primus Inter Pares horn, Liquid double-wall leadpipe, the lil' horn, abalone caps, and very soon the DAT Kase, a Carbon fiber case. Thank you Nic! On a more serious note, I think it definitely changed my perception about how finite life can be. And that it has given me the drive to do more.
KMT: Can you describe your "alliance" with Ken Pope and the new horns you have developed together? Who does what? What's your vibe working together?
IB: Ken and I "clicked" very well on personal level from the beginning of my business, about 14 years ago. A few years back, he told me about these Chinese horns, and I was like, nah dude, they can't be made right. And then he insisted that I should try one, and I finally did and was very surprised by them. He has been back and forth with them for years about what needed to be done to make them great horns, and last year I also put in my two cents, since I was also making custom horns, so I know a little bit about that. Finally, in January of 2015, we both flew to the NAMM show in CA, and I was totally hooked on them. I decided on the spot to retire from making mutes and to dedicate myself to promoting these horns. They are made to our specs, and they are so well made that we need to do nothing to them. We just make sure that every batch we receive is done to our quality standard, and they are. Not once have we had any problem with any of the imported horns.
Here is a funny story: in August of 2015, I was at the International Horn Competition of America in Lincoln, NE, presenting the Alliance horns. The factory owners emailed me the week before saying that there is a 15 year old boy who is doing the Professional division, and he is playing one of our Alliance horns. Not only was I was dismissive about that, but I didn't even take time to email them back. I was like, Dude, he is 15 and doing the pro division along with the greatest upcoming horn players in the world? It's not like he's going to advance the second round or something". Even more, I left on Sunday around noon before the finals, and while driving down the highway I got a text from a friend saying "dude, is the Chinese boy in the finals using your horn?" I said, "Huh?!?!? He is in the finals???"
I quickly pulled over and went online and saw his amazing Gliere interpretation. Sure enough, he got second prize in the Pro division. I learned a valuable lesson: don't dismiss people without hearing them first. Also, this shows what Ken and I said from the beginning: the Alliance horns are very good, and now it's up to the horn player to take them to the next level, a very high level.
KMT: Rumor has it that you are working on a new project, making carbon fibre cases. That sounds challenging! Tell us about your process and what to expect from the new product.
IB: I have had this idea in my head for a few years now about a horn case that would be so strong and so well made inside, that if you drop it from, let's say, 10 feet, or down the stairs, it would totally protect your horn. And again, I found myself telling everyone how great this case is going to be. This time people didn't laugh at me! They said, "Yes, you can make this. I can't wait for this."
This has been the most challenging project so far, as I set the limit impossibly high, but I love a challenge. I have clocked about 500 hours on the design so far. It's again all trial and error. And a funny part: after spending substantially more than 100 hours on the first design, I realized that the wheels are placed 180 degrees on the wrong side. But instead of counting these spent hours as wasted, I actually think it is good that it happened, because once you actually see the shape on the case in real life, the proportions are different than on paper. I quickly saw what needed to be done differently and how, and I can say that I am very happy with the second design. I will have a case ready for impact testing by mid November, well in time for Christmas shopping. The case will have some very innovative things, and the very, very few people who have actually seen it have been totally taken by it. I can't wait!
KMT: What, besides music and craftsmanship, inspires you?
IB: I think that skydiving and running with the Bulls in Pamplona on July 10th, 2013, and later that October in the Big Run with the Bulls in Atlanta greatly inspired me and gave me a different perspective about life. Not only did I realize that life is finite, but it also greatly inspired me to do more, faster and better. Life is a continuous challenge that must be taken head first.
Make your own destiny. Don't just accept your fate!