By Brianne Marks
Take a trip back in time. Can you remember a pivotal moment – perhaps in your childhood or as a young adult – that stirred up a conviction in you that music, in some way, shape or form, would play a key role in your life? For Miriam Risko, that moment came at the tender age of five as she experienced seeing her first musical, and she’s never looked back. From there, she went on to study piano and voice, and later on, as an adult, she went on to sing in bands and co-found Mike Risko Music Store in Ossining, NY with her husband.
Together, the Riskos have built an award-winning business that’s a staple of their community. As a thank you to the community that has supported them over the years, Risko heads up several charitable and fun initiatives for local customers, and volunteers her time to further music education.
Below, she shares her journey with us.
Learn more at mikeriskomusicschool.com.
WiMN: You’ve had a lifelong passion for music that influenced your career and philanthropic endeavors. Can you recall an early childhood musical experience that sparked your love of music?
MR: Music has been part of my whole life. I come from a family of musicians. I started studying piano at the age of five and took voice lessons a few years later. It was at that same age my parents took me to see a local production of Godspell. The moment the curtain rose, I was mesmerized and knew I wanted to become a singer. From that point on, it’s all I wanted to do.
I’ve always loved singing and I took every opportunity I could as a child to sing. My first-grade teacher had a piano in her classroom and she would teach us all kind of songs, including “In My Own Little Corner” from the musical Cinderella. She was very inspiring and worked hard to integrate music into the classroom, even though she wasn’t a music teacher.
In 4th grade, there was a talent show in which I sang that song. It was my first time performing solo in front of a large audience, and I loved it. From then on, I participated in all kinds of shows, wrote music and studied instruments. By the time I was in 6th grade, I was involved in a show at a local professional theater. Between attending performing arts camps in the summer and being a contestant in the “Miss NY National Teenager pageant,” I realized how much I loved performing.
I continued my musical studies throughout high school and college, and worked as a singer in a local band, as well as performing with community theaters.
WiMN: And your musical pursuits expanded as an adult when you and your husband, Mike, met. What are some of the things you worked on together?
MR: When Mike and I met, he had a small teaching practice and taught guitar lessons. I joined him in 1997 after a brief career in sales and marketing, and started teaching piano and voice there. I still loved marketing and was excited to use those skills to help generate awareness for the music school. In my head, I had this vision of what the school could grow to become, and because it was a pre-social media world, I started creating newsletters and bulletin boards and designing ads to develop awareness. Mike and I would hang signs all over town to generate buzz for our school.
Eventually, we rented more space and added teachers and lesson rooms. We even rented an additional floor when a leak in the roof forced our landlord to build another level (and we got married in that space in 2000). I was still teaching and singing in a band with Mike, and had started to create more programs, classes and brochures – much of which would eventually find its way to our online venues.
Mike and I are fortunate that we’ve always worked as a team. We love creating ideas together that will inspire others to embrace music – I typically create the programs and Mike is excellent at implementing them. It’s a balance that’s worked really well for us over the years.
WiMN: How did you and he decide to open Mike Risko Music Store, and what unique touch do you offer to differentiate it from others?
MR: We built Mike Risko Music School from the ground up beginning in 1997, and it has evolved so much over the years. In 2009, we bought a building up the street from where our music school was located and moved our entire operation into this new space. The building had housed a music store for 30 years, but we were excited to start our own retail store and make a fresh start. Because retail was a new focus for us, we definitely faced our share of challenges, but we were excited about everything there was to learn.
What’s been really important for Mike and me over the years is the relationship with our customers. We try to create an experience for them the moment they walk in the door, even if they’re coming for a regularly scheduled lesson. Our goal is to get to know our customers and to connect with them, so that we can offer the best possible service when they are in our school and store. We’ve even delivered instruments to customers in the local gym parking lot, at the town pool or the supermarket! We stay open late to accommodate customers, FaceTime with them to explain lesson assignments, and really try to be as available as possible for them.
I think our customers have come to expect that level of attention from us, and we are thrilled to be able to provide it, even as the store has grown and we have expanded.
WiMN: What are some of the things you love best about owning a music store?
MR: Without a doubt it is building relationships. The people who come in and out of our store and school are the reason our business is so vibrant. They all have a reason for coming in, and they are anxious to share that with us. We want to learn what’s driving them to learn an instrument so that we can offer them the best service – it excites us to hear their stories, and our job is to help them find success, which we work very hard to achieve.
We don’t just sell gear – being musicians enables us to share our music with anyone who needs it on some level. Whether we’re playing music for an event, providing music at the local farmer’s market, or just trying to create and excite more budding musicians, our business really gives us a platform to make a difference, and that’s the reason we’re here.
We’re really proud to be recognized by the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) as one of the top 100 music stores in the world for the past five consecutive years. We have also been recognized locally by Westchester Magazine as the best music store and best music school, among other categories. Our customers have helped make some of these accolades possible, and we are so grateful for their recognition.
WiMN: And now, as a well-established business in your community, you’ve been giving back to local children. Can you share some of your charitable activities?
MR: We strongly believe in giving back to the community. We are here because of the support of the community and we are very grateful for this opportunity. We try to support community events as much as possible and through our program, Risko Music Gives Back. Community groups and local schools can request live music or a musical program for events they are hosting. We are involved in hundreds of these events free-of-charge, because it allows us to bring music to our community without any concerns of funding by the groups.
Over the years, we have played at book fairs, educational events, family fun nights, back-to-school events and so much more. We provide music for our town’s baseball opening day, and we train children in our classes to sing for sporting events. In many cases, we have donated our earnings from music events back to local charities, because we believe so strongly in giving back to our community – a community where we are raising our own children as well.
Not long ago, I founded the local Make Music Day for Ossining, NY. As many know, it’s an international celebration of music that encourages music making on many different levels. I launched it in 2015 with no expectations because it was the first year, but I was so proud of its success. Eventually, I organized musicians and locations at local stores and parks. By 2018, we were at 26 locations, with 26 bands around the community. We even added Make Music Day Winter to offer even more musical opportunities around the community. We are excited to watch Make Music Day continue to grow. This year, we’re working with the local Chamber of Commerce to have a trolley taking people through the community to listen to all the bands.
WiMN: It’s commonly known that some women have had an intimidating or discriminatory experience inside a music store. How does your store create an inviting environment for girls and female musicians?
MR: Mike Risko Music is very welcoming to families because we offer so many services that are geared toward both kids and adults. We don’t want anyone to feel intimidated by music, learning an instrument or being part of a musical group. As a female business owner and a mom, I’m very cognizant of how to make the experience more comfortable so that females of all ages can come into the store and envision themselves as future musicians or singers.
Learning as much as I can about instruments and gear is important to me so that I can speak with authority and lend my advice to aspiring female musicians. I take my role very seriously as someone who can set an example for young females, and it gives me great joy to share my experiences as a singer in a band, and as the only female for many years in the bands I played in. As a female, I hope to inspire a younger generation to embrace their love for music, realize that they can accomplish anything in the music world they set their mind to, and be part of a growing and changing industry. I am excited that my 12-year-old daughter is a drummer, and I enjoy watching her pursue music.
Over the years, I have met so many amazing women through NAMM who own music stores (like Cindy Cook, Tracy Leenman, and the owners of San Diego Music Studio) and I think they are rock stars in our industry and an inspiration to me and other female music school and store owners.
WiMN: Your store even offers birthday party packages! How did that idea come about?
MR: We love our classes and we took several of our favorites and turned them into rock star birthday party packages complete with rock star goody bags, invites and more. We try to make sure they stay within the realm of the programs we offer and we provide the parties in our music store with food, and cake, of course!
WiMN: In closing, what advice would you offer children starting their journey learning music?
MR: Learn and practice as much as you can. Listen to lots of music and go see live music whenever you can. Allow yourself to be inspired by other artists and people in the industry and follow your dreams. Everyone has it in them to become the musician they want to be. Follow your heart, keep practicing and strive to be the best! If you work hard, you can achieve anything.