Middle C Music Owner Looks Back on 14 Years in Tenleytown
If you are even the slightest bit musically inclined, chances are you have visited Middle C Music. For the past 14 years the Tenleytown music shop has catered to music lovers of all ages – from novices to professionals – seeking instruments, sheet music, lessons, and friendly advice on anything and everything related to making music. As the only full-service music store in the District, Middle C draws customers from across the city, but remains very much rooted in the local community that has helped it flourish.
As Middle C Music celebrates its 14th anniversary this Sunday, it is hard to imagine Tenleytown without the music store. It’s is a lively place, with a talented young staff whose passion for music is evident – from how they greet customers and talk about their merchandise to their impromptu songs and musical performances. In addition to customers, the iconic shop welcomes nearly 600 students each week into the vibrant, eclectic home it has created on Wisconsin Avenue.
But in the early 2000s, the neighborhood almost lost its music store forever.
In 2002, the owner of the previous iteration of Middle C Music decided to close her doors. The business was hemorrhaging money, losing up to $4,000 a month, and she just couldn’t make a go of it.
When local resident and guitarist Myrna Sislen heard the shop was in trouble, she became a woman possessed with saving the store. She knew that if the music shop closed, no one would open another one in the neighborhood and, more than likely, it would become home to one of Tenleytown’s ubiquitous mattress stores.
Myrna, with no prior business experience, sprung in to action. In roughly a week’s time she bought Middle C Music. She chuckles remembering how gobsmacked her lawyer was by the speed with which she moved from idea to ownership.
She kept the name, kept the inventory, but completely transformed the business with a focus on becoming a community store known for its customer service. At the same time, she herself underwent a transformation from performer to entrepreneur. Myrna candidly admits she was relying on her gut instincts in the early days. “I didn’t know what not to do,” she says, but it was a bit of a blessing as it gave her the freedom to try new approaches.
While an internationally recognized musician – she toured with legendary guitarist Charlie Byrd for 15 years as part of the Washington Guitar Quintet – Myrna also admits that when she started with Middle C Music she had little knowledge of instruments beyond the guitar. She credits the supportive community of music retailers with helping her in those first years, especially the National Association of Music Merchants – an organization on whose board of directors she now serves.
She wasn’t flying completely blind, however. Her experience from decades as a touring, professional musician translated into the new endeavor. Professional musicians are accustomed to marketing themselves, managing their careers, and – most importantly, Myrna points out – working tirelessly to prepare without ever counting up the hours it takes to become successful.
The evolution from musician to businesswoman was a natural one for Myrna. “I shifted to being, over time, an enabler [of musicians] rather than a performer,” she says. She channeled her creative energy into Middle C with the goal of building a community store where “people come in and feel comfortable and feel safe.”
Over the past 14 years under Myrna’s leadership, Middle C Music has become the gathering place that she envisioned. The store encourages people to touch not just look – pianos are there to be played, drums to be tapped, and guitars strummed. Novices are welcomed with the same enthusiasm as veteran musicians. Events throughout the year, from recitals to movie showings to Rock Band camp, foster community. And many a local child comes through Middle C Music on the hunt for the Tenley Yeti as part of the annual Tenley WinterFest.
When asked what she takes the most pride in, she doesn’t site awards received or annual sales. She talks about being able to purchase instruments made in America, saying “I have to do what I can to support those families.” She beams as she recounts the very first time one of her teachers was able to put a down payment on a house. And she gets emotional recounting when an older gentleman came into the store and asked if it were okay if he played the trumpet and she was able to give him the gift of music.
“We have a responsibility to be honest, and be there, and be as helpful and nurturing as we can be,” Myrna says in describing the store’s philosophy.
Since purchasing Middle C Music in 2002, Myrna has built a Tenleytown institution that today employs nine staff and 23 teachers, provides nine studio spaces, and teaches hundreds of students, nearly half of whom are adults. She has done it with an innate business sense and a clear vision for a community music store, transforming a dying business into a thriving one.
With so much accomplished in the past 14 years, some store owners might sit back and coast. But that’s not Myrna. She plans to build Middle C Music’s music education program, maintain the store’s reputation for integrity, and focus on customer service as community service – and have a lot of fun doing it.
Join Middle C Music for a special birthday celebration on Sunday, March 13 from noon to 5 p.m. at 4530 Wisconsin Avenue.