Middle C Music, Washington D.C.’s only full service music store, is celebrating its 10-year anniversary this month. In addition to providing music lessons and selling instruments, Middle C functions as a space to foster creativity, musical growth and community outreach. I recently had the opportunity to chat with store owner and classical guitarist, Myrna Sislen.
Jenna Makowski: Can you talk about the history of the store and your decision to buy it?
Myrna Sislen: It was a Thursday. I was working out at the health club across the street, and I had just finished my kickboxing class. As I left I happened to be passing another local musician on the rowing machine and he said to me, “Did you know that Pam (the woman who had owned the store previously) is going to sell it?” And I said that yes, I had heard, and that I was sorry about it. I was teaching at George Washington University at the time, and I frequently sent my students there. And he asked me, “Do you know what she’s selling it for?” I said no, and he told me, and I thought, “Oh my gosh, I could write a check for that!” It wasn’t much at all. So I did.
JM: How would you describe the services and products that you offer and sell to the community?
MS: Middle C Music is the definition of a community music store. It’s the only full service music store in the District of Columbia. Full service means that I have print music; I have rental instruments; I have lessons; I have accessories; I have drum sets; I have instruments to sell; I have all aspects of music that people can come and experience. In addition I have gift items so non-musicians can come and enjoy the store. My purpose was to create a space that would be safe, nurturing, inclusive, and a real part of the neighborhood.
JM: Can you talk about your own musical background?
MS: I am a classical guitarist. I have toured all over world, including state department tours as a soloist. I also wrote books and was teaching at the same time because that’s what everyone does. I taught at George Washington University for 412 years – not exaggerating! I’m also a tap dancer and have performed at the Kennedy Center. I’ve good hands and good feet – as for the middle part I can’t say – but the hands and feet are good. My life has been as a performer. I also toured for 13 years with the Washington Guitar Quartet with Charlie Byrd until he passed away, and it was that point at which the opportunity to buy the store presented itself; a door opened. I didn’t know anything about retail, which I soon learned.
JM: What was it like transitioning from the world of music performance to the world of music business?
MS: Well it was quite daunting, as I knew nothing. I was fortunate in that I turned to the industry for help and found that retailers, dealers, and organizations such as the National Association of Music Merchants have places to attend classes. Everyone in the industry was very willing to help in any way they could, so that I had information. That’s all I needed was information about how to do this. That is what has sustained me. I think there is some instinct that I have, and not knowing the rules was good for me. I’ve been financially conservative, and I do not run my business via a business model. I don’t encourage my people to be high pressure sales people. It’s more about having a comfortable place, and letting customers come in and fall in love with an instrument. It seems to have worked. I have managed to integrate the store into the community. The community wants it here. If the community didn’t want the store to be here, it wouldn’t be here.
JM: In addition to being D.C.’s only full service music store, what characterizes Middle C Music as being distinct?
MS: The store is different. If you walk in – this is what I’ve heard from people anyway, it doesn’t look different to me because it’s mine – but what others say is, “Wow! This is different!” It’s not like other music stores. It feels different. It looks different. The way that things are displayed is a little different. And by different I mean comfortable and homey. As a woman, that’s what I bring to this. I recently learned that in the music industry, 1% of music store owners in the USA are women. If it’s not part of the family, women-owned music stores are 1%. It’s all guys, and it’s really old school. Those of us who are owners have really had to fight to get a foot, a toe hold, in the industry itself because it’s so male dominated.
JM: What role do you see this store filling in the community?
MS: I see it as a safe place, a place for parents to bring their kids to have lessons. The structure of the lessons is much less rigid than at other places with a curriculum. My philosophy is that everyone learns how to read music, how to hold the instrument, and proper, good, basic foundation techniques. But the content of the lesson is geared toward what people want to play. It’s about having fun and playing it right. I think that’s the function of the store. People want music in their lives. And it’s not just children; 45% of students are adults.
JM: What advice would you give to someone who is just starting lessons, or who is interested in music?
MS: For a child I would let him play what he wants to play, not what the parents want him to play. No instrument is bad, they are all good. Kids are better off if you let them go where they want to go. For adults, don’t be afraid. It’s safe here. Come and do what you’ve wanted to do for the last 20 years. Don’t be intimidated. It will be fun. Go with your heart and go with your soul.
Middle C Music celebrates its official anniversary on Thursday, March 22, from 5:00-9:00 pm. In addition to great live music by the store’s professional teachers and staff, Ms. Sislen will be presented with a ceremonial resolution by the DC City Council in honor of her 10 years of service to the community. The festivities continue into the weekend with student and faculty recitals