When I was a teenager living in Aurora, Colorado in the late 70s and early 80s, I looked for inspiration in my teachers, my youth orchestra, my local hero Eugene Fodor and also something that came seasonally to my mailbox: the Shar Music catalogue.
Ahhhh, the Shar catalogue! The Internet (as we know it) didn't exist back then - heck, personal computers barely existed, and certainly smartphones did not exist. If you aspired to a higher-level violin set-up, you either had to go and physically examine such things in a store, or study a catalogue to see what was possible.
The Shar catalogue offered pages of what felt like insider knowledge - the best strings, different kinds of mutes, puzzling items like a dampit (what could that be?) and velvet-lined violin cases. It was the latter that seized my imagination. Eventually my parents gave in and granted me the gift of an "American case" from Shar - the most durable case I have ever had. It has lasted to this day.
One of the wonderful things about being the Editor of Violinist.com has been the opportunity to meet and talk with those larger-than-life heroes of my childhood - I did get to talk to Eugene Fodor, and now I have had the chance to speak with Charles Avsharian, the force of nature behind Shar Music.
This year, Shar Music celebrates its 60th anniversary, and you could say that the story of the company is a very "American case." Today, Shar is a major supplier of instruments, bows, sheet music, cases, strings, and accessories in North America, with about 75 employees and two large warehouses. It is still based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
"We started out as a mail-order company - our little orders came in with checks," said Charles Avsharian, CEO and co-founder of Shar Music, speaking with me in a phone interview earlier this spring. "Then the business developed and became a telephone-order company, using credit cards. Then came the Internet, and it became an an e-commerce business. So it all was evolution, and lots of contacts and relationships."
The business actually started a little before all that - and it's a mighty interesting story. It started when Avsharian was studying with the great violin pedagogue Ivan Galamian, at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
"When I was at the Curtis Institute in 1962, I was irritated because strings were so expensive for us students," Avsharian said. While the players in the Philadelphia Orchestra enjoyed a 20 percent discount for strings at the local shop -- William Moennig Co. -- students had to pay full price. Avsharian took his complaint straight to William Moennig himself, who told him, "Yes, Charles, but we can't do that for students. If you buy a dozen A strings, we'll give you 10 percent off."
"I just looked at him, and wires crossed in my brain," Avsharian said. "I said, 'Well, thanks.' I left, and that was that. I said, 'I've got to figure this out.' So I got a lead on a company in Austria, and I started importing strings from them. They were much cheaper; I could sell them to my friends at a 30 percent discount. That's how this thing started! I was 22."
Avsharian didn't stop there. He went to New York City - to Wurlitzer's and to the Schroetter Company-places that sold wholesale, 50 percent off.
"I walked in and said, 'I'm a dealer,'" Avsharian said. They looked at the 20-something student with some skepticism, until he offered to pay cash. To this, they agreed. "So they wrote up an account, and I started buying strings in New York as well."
At that point, Avsharian got more ambitious about selling the strings.
"I started going down to the Academy of Music, where the Philadelphia Orchestra performed and rehearsed," Avsharian said. "On Friday afternoons, between the rehearsal and the matinee, I'd go in the green room - there was no security in those days." He would open up a hollowed-out double violin case - given to him by his close friend Shmuel Ashkenazy - that was full of packaged strings, as well as a collection of tubes full of straight strings. "I would sell them to the people in the orchestra for 30 percent off; that was better than they got at Moennig's - or anywhere!"
While it's now possible to find discounted strings all over the Internet, back then it was highly unusual. "There was no discount, period, in the country, it wasn't done. Except I did it," he said. "Meanwhile, I was just a student."
One weekend, Avsharian was scheduled to perform a concerto with a symphony, so his father, Michael Sr., traveled from Michigan to Philadelphia, to see his performance. "He came up into my shabby apartment, and I said, 'Dad it's Friday, I have to go down to the Academy and sell my strings. Do you want to come?' and he said, 'Sure.'"
Michael Avsharian Sr. sat at the far end of a long bench in the green room, while Avsharian opened his case with the strings. "The rehearsal was over, the guys started milling around and coming in, and I was selling," he said. "My father, being a good immigrant Armenian, was just watching it: he's seeing strings move one way and money move the other way."
"Shortly after, he asked, 'Is this is something I might do in my retirement?'"
He didn't know anything about music, but Michael Sr. started selling strings from their basement in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Eventually he asked his other son, Michael Jr., a violinist 10 years older than Charles, to come help, and as the business grew, they moved the business out of the basement into 900 square-foot house.
Meanwhile, Charles was trying to figure out what exactly to do with his life.
Charles Avsharian was born and brought up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the son of Armenian immigrants whose families had escaped genocide in Turkey. He was one of four children - two girls and two boys.
Their introduction to the violin was largely due to "woman who came to town from Iowa. She turned out to be a most formidable music educator in strings - her name was Elizabeth Green," Avsharian said. You might recognize the name - Green was a major force behind Galamian's classic technique book Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching, encouraging and assisting him in documenting his teaching philosophies in book form. She involved both Charles and Michael Avsharian in the process. The model photos are all of Charles and his brother, Michael.
But well before that, "Elizabeth Green found my brother, Michael, and got him started on the violin," Avsharian said. "He was talented, and she really pushed him. So Mike ended up going to Juilliard, studying with Galamian."
When Charles was seven, "my brother played the violin - so somebody stuck a violin under my chin," he said. "But I was just a Midwest boy. To me it was fun to play outside and have friends. So I practiced, and Elizabeth pushed as hard as she could, but I wasn't the most ambitious violin student."
And yet he made some impressive headway.
"When I was 11 she took me up to Meadowmount to play for Galamian. When I was 12 and 13, I went to Meadowmount full-time, and my room was right next to Galamian's. There were no kids at Meadowmount in those days," Charles said. "All of a sudden I'm practicing from 8 a.m. to noon, 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. -- are you kidding?" he laughed. He then received a scholarship and went to Interlochen for a summer.
But he didn't join the full-time pre-college programs at Curtis or Interlochen - he remained at his public high school in Ann Arbor. "Actually I got interested in jazz," he said. "One day my best friend Jerry Hartweg said, 'Listen Charlie, you've got to come to this concert - Stan Kenton.' And I said, 'Who's Stan Kenton? What's that all about?' I never had listened to anything like that."
He went to the concert and was awestruck.
"He was a phenomenon, unbelievable," Avsharian said. "These guys were playing, and I stopped caring about the dance or anything else -- I just stood about 10 feet away from the stage, with this sound, this impact, hitting me physically. I was blown away."
He decided to form a jazz band with his high school friends. "I immediately got the music, and I formed a 16-piece band," he said. "We rehearsed in somebody's basement. I played upright bass - we had the saxes, trombones, trumpets, it was a real band, a performing band." He played gigs and formed little jazz groups - and then it was time for college.
"I entered the University of Michigan, and it was a complete disaster," he said. He did not enter as a music major - he thought he might like to be a corporate lawyer. "I had no motivation, and I was just dunking donuts at the university cafeteria and wasting my time."
After a year and a half of drifting, he made a huge decision: he would to go back to the violin, seriously. "I had been coasting on the violin for many years," he said. He decided he needed to leave Ann Arbor - so he went to his brother, Michael, who was teaching violin at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. "We're very close and always have been. I thought, I'll just practice, I know how to practice," he said. "So I went there, and I just holed up. I practiced and got everything developing."
Now 19, Avsharian returned to Meadowmount. "I studied with Galamian again and just worked," he said. At the end of the summer, Galamian invited him to come to Curtis that Fall. So Avsharian went to Curtis, and he remained there for the next four years.
"That was my entry into a whole other level of attitude towards music, and with Galamian, it was just hard-core," Avsharian said. In his third year, he went to Marlboro, and it was a revelation. "That is the Cathedral of Music - at that time, especially. All the greats were there. There were three members of the Budapest Quartet. That's where the Guarneri Quartet was formed, too, they were all friends. Incredible names, incredible players and musicians. That's where I was taken into the world of making music vs. the technical powerhouse attitude that we all had, 'I want to play like Heifetz,' at Curtis. At Marlboro we played sextets, quintets, with winds, everything. We recorded all the Brandenburg with Casals - he was there! We recorded the Bach Suites, Triple Piano Concerto and more- everything!"
Avsharian was building a strong career as a violinist. He went back to Michigan and played as concertmaster in a nearby symphony, gave recitals. He was asked to join the faculty at the University of Michigan, and to teach at Interlochen.
"That's what I thought I'd do with my life, be a teacher at a university," Avsharian said. "This is great: eight months of teaching, with breaks; and you can play recitals and concerts whenever you want. What a life!"
BELOW: From 1969, Charles Avsharian performing the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the University of Michigan Symphony:
But two years into that life, he started asking, "Is this all there is?"
His father had been running Shar out of the basement, then from a 900 square-foot house in Ann Arbor. His brother Michael had moved back to Michigan to help as the business grew.
His father asked Charles, "Would you consider coming to help?"
"I'm a different personality than my brother - we're rather polar opposites," Avsharian said. "In the business world, not personally, but in the business world, I'm fairly aggressive and ambitious."
So Avsharian decided to quit his post at the University of Michigan and go back to what he had started: the family business. Then just a week after that major decision, he received a very enticing offer. Conductor Donald Johanos called Avsharian and invited him to be concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony.
"That was a very long pause for me," Avsharian said. "I said, 'I am totally flattered, and what an honor. But I have made a decision, and I'm going to keep this one, and thank you.' So I turned that down."
It turned out to be the right decision. In devoting himself full-time to the family business, Avsharian had found something that truly ignited his enthusiasm.
"I was right for it," Avsharian said. "It was just what I like to do: go out, go to all the countries and visit the makers, suppliers - make the deals, do the thing. My brother was a very quiet person, still is. He helped out, and between the two of them, they filled the orders, and I was out there doing my business and expanding."
He realized the power of advertising right away. "I realized: We have to look bigger than we are!" He locked down the back covers of various magazines: the American String Teachers Association Journal, the Suzuki Journal, and Strings Magazine. Today they advertise online, including sponsoring Violinist.com.
"When Suzuki came along, I was all over Suzuki, I thought it was phenomenal," Avsharian said. He also met David Lusterman, right the time that he was founding Strings Magazine. "He said, 'Well I'm going to start this magazine, I wondered if Shar is interested,' and I said, 'Absolutely. We're in it, just count on it David.'"
Those back covers helped people to get to know Shar - back in the 1970s. Then everything changed, evolving from mail-order, to telephone-order to Internet. Shar grew from three employees to 75, with two large facilities in Ann Arbor, one 50,000 square feet and the other 12,000 square feet.
But with all the change, one important thing has remained the same: "What has never changed is the fact that we're musicians," Avsharian said. "I've taught, played, performed, and so has my brother, so has my wife, Tina Avsharian (currently Shar's Chief Operating Officer), who is a virtuoso violinist, gold-medal competition winner."
"Our purpose was never any different: in the beginning I wanted to help musicians get products that they needed, create access to these things," Avsharian said. "That continues to be what our core value is: providing those things which musicians need: access to music. Everybody who comes to work there, they all tend to be some sort of musician. Because if you don't love and understand music, it's not going to work out. I suppose I could sell spark plugs, but really I don't know enough about that."
Also - and I can vouch for this - if you call Shar on the telephone, you can talk to a live person who knows something about stringed instruments.
"Yes, and that's getting even better, and I'm proud to say that," Avsharian said. "We are training our people, and we are talking about things like care and honesty and empathy - these things are critical. How many companies can you call and really talk to someone? In the old days, you called somebody up! Now you have to listen to a recording and push 1 for this and 2 for that. Or they just don't know."
What is happening next for Shar, as we emerge from this pandemic?
"Technically, we knew that we had to improve, revise, totally turn upside down and change our whole e-commerce systems -- to give better service and have more information," Avsharian said. "If you call and you want to know something, we want it to be clear that we know everything about it and answer all your questions. We want to convey that we understand what you want, and we want to serve you."
"We would also like to work with schools and school systems as they open," he said. "During the pandemic, that's how we got hurt, as did others: schools closed when the pandemic started - the orchestras closed, the fifth-grade startups closed. It was all in the drain. So as we recover from the pandemic, school expansion is important."
Shar would also like to make it easier for people to obtain quality instruments, and to maintain them.
"String instruments are really annoying, aren't they?" Avsharian said. "You get this violin, it's got strings, the pegs slip, the bridge falls, down, it's a horror story. So we have to make that much easier for people -- because if they can get beyond that, they can have a lot of fun."
"There is so much we want to make easier through blogs, access to products, getting different people started in programs if they don't have enough money," Avsharian said. "Our ultimate aim is to really improve everything about the climate for musicians, teachers, and parents."
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