From Wicked Local: Bedford shop vows the music will never stop (9/9/2020)
Bedford shop vows the music will never stop
J. Michael Leonard and his wife, Rebecca, are trying to find ways to ensure music thrives at all levels.
[Wicked Local staff photo/Joy Hosford]
Music is an ingrained part of New England summers, as sheds and pavilions draw diverse national acts, filling the humid nights with songs, both familiar and new. In March, the pandemic turned off the lights - venues across the region cancelled shows. Concerts of every genre went on hold, or in some rare instances, online.
The result: Perhaps the quietest summer in memory.
The large-venue shutdown was just the public face of the crisis that rattled the music world. For every artist who sells out Great Woods are countless others who make a living teaching and playing gigs - working musicians who rely on staying busy to get paid. Those musicians were just as out of work as the big stars.
And it hurt.
Then you pull into the picture even close and another unexpected impact is felt: Students from elementary to high school age shut out of band programs because COVID is not to be trifled with. That hurts the future of music - and it hurts small businesses like Leonard Music in Bedford. The shop on Great Road, run by husband and wife Rebecca and J. Michael Leonard, is the go-to rental shop for 35 or 40 school districts.
“When you sign up for music class, they direct you to us,” Rebecca said.
Divvied up, the rentals make up about 80% of the business. When the pandemic came, almost 1,000 instruments were returned by kids suddenly uninterested in pursuing the new hobby.
“Most of the kids who had been engaged for a while stuck with it. Most of the returns were for first time musicians,” she said.
There were several issues: Without the motivation of playing with friends, performing in year-end concerts and managing group-online lessons had an impact. The suddenness of the shutdown meant schools were scrambling to make academics function remotely. Music took a back seat to that.
There were other impacts, Rebecca Leonard said. Most schools own the bigger instruments loaned to students. Those need repair, done over the summer at her shop. This summer, no repairs because no one used the instruments.
Now, the shop is entering what should be the crazy time as dozens of families sign those permissions slips to start their child’s musical odyssey. This year, that crazy time has been replaced by uncertainty.
This is not a Bedford-centric issue, Leonard said. The shop has rental agreements with 35 or 40 school systems. All have been told no wind or brass instruments in school for the foreseeable future. Some schools have said even remote classes won’t happen. Others, Bedford among them, are looking for ways to keep music alive.
“We need to get creative to make music work,” Leonard said.
The Leonards identified two immediate problems. First, how to hook kids starting out in music. Second, how to help all those musicians out of work, who are often ineligible for unemployment because of their freelance status.
The idea: Combine the problems to create the solution.
“We found that group lessons didn’t work online, but one-on-one seemed to work pretty well,” Rebecca Leonard said.
So they put out calls to their contacts in the music industry. Those run deep. She is a gigging musician and adjunct professor at UMass. He’s a well-known concert saxophonist who has been doing high-quality instrument repair for years. So they reached out to friends, to members of the Boston Musicians Union, to anyone they could think of.
The response has been great. Now, if a child signs up to rent an instrument - any instrument - from Leonard Music, they get a list of teachers willing to teach them everything from putting the instrument together, to coaxing the first sounds and the first notes and the first melody. For the beginner, that first lesson is free, with the hope it will hook them on a lifetime hobby, Rebecca said.
“For the kids’ first time, it’s everything from putting the instrument together, to making the first sounds and the first few notes,” she said.
The hope: By encouraging young students to get started now, they can help music programs at the schools thrive.
“Embrace the idea of your child playing music,” she said. “We have to be creative and supported and get them excited about it.”
According to Leonard, they have had a great response from musicians eager to teach one-on-one, virtual lessons.
“Music will come back,” she said.