“Music is here to stay,” Rebecca Leonard asserted. “The learning environment is going to be different for a while.”
Leonards Music, at 128 The Great Road since 2011, rents, sells, and repairs musical instruments – everything except pianos and electric guitars. Their business has been clobbered by the restrictions of the pandemic, reflecting the shriveling landscape of performing arts.
The biggest customers are schools and their music programs, Leonard said. The business provides instruments for up to 40 school districts in the region, working with department heads or band directors, buying from manufacturers and renting them to parents. They also maintain some of the larger instruments that schools own, and also serve some college programs as well as area professional and amateur musicians.
Michael and Rebecca Leonard met as students at the New England Conservatory of Music. He plays saxophone and other instruments and she is a clarinetist. He started the business at their home in Wayland in 1991 as a repair shop. “Often he would drive to the schools and repair instruments on-site,” Rebecca Leonard recounted. They began the rental operation in 2002.
Everything changed in March, as it did for everybody else.
Leonards closed for more than two months, along with all other non-essential businesses. “We have eight employees and we have kept them all on, including health insurance,” she said. They include three repair specialists and a driver.
Since reopening right after Memorial Day, “We’ve kind of stumbled along,” Leonard continued. “Many of our rental customers became disenfranchised. Band directors didn’t know how to do this on Zoom. It was a disaster in the spring.”
Indeed, more than 1,000 children ended their monthly instrument rentals. “We had a mass exodus,” Leonard said, and they had to rent storage space that usually wasn’t needed until summer vacation to accommodate replacement inventory.
Business was down around 20 percent in recent months when compared to a year earlier, Leonard said. “Normally in summer, we would be repairing all school instruments. But they didn’t get used in the spring, so nobody is getting them fixed. She said the business received some assistance from federal emergency programs.
As schools attempt to reopen, the uncertainty continues. “Because schools are starting so staggered, some of the band programs are still trying to figure out what we are going to do.” Particularly disheartening is a directive from the state education department that prohibits playing brass and wind instruments in schools indefinitely because of the risk of spreading the Covid-19 virus, Leonard said.
“Now there’s “a real scramble. Every school is trying to reinvent the wheel,” she continued. “Some are looking for ways to teach and play virtually; others are promoting private lessons. But kids may not be interested if they can’t be part of a band. There’s so much socializing that goes along with being in an ensemble.”
“I keep trying to tell parents and kids that we will be making music together – we just don’t know when.”
The pain is particularly intense at the elementary school level, she observed. “Most band directors realize they’ve got to get the kids engaged because this is their feeder system.” Younger children get to spend more time practicing, she added.
“Normally a company like us goes to schools all the time. We are hoping to work with schools for ways to pick up and drop off. We are even willing to go to people’s houses.”
Rebecca and Michael Leonard have performed throughout their adult lives, traveling worldwide. He began at age 19 with the Boston Symphony; she has worked on a freelance basis with various smaller orchestras in the state. Musicians often need to supplement their incomes: “I have always taught, and he supplemented performing with repairing, so he could learn to repair his own instruments.”
“The performing world has come to a crashing end,” Leonard said. “So many of our friends and customers who made their living as freelancers. They are all struggling.” She referenced an emergency fund set up to help musicians in desperate need.
“We thought we could help,” said Leonard, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. “I teach private lessons on Zoom and it works quite well. Teaching a group is much more challenging.”
“Maybe we can connect unemployed musicians with kids who want to learn,” she suggested. Many young people are spending a lot of hours with screens; “maybe they can get off the computer and learn to play an instrument.”