At Larry’s Music Center, we’ve just finished what we refer to as “band rental season,” which is September and part of October. It’s the time of year when fifth- and sixth-grade students who are starting band come into our store with their parents to rent their beginning band instruments. Band instrument rentals are a huge part of our industry and, although I know they’re not something I normally talk much about, they’re an equally large part of our business. As we deal with lines of parents, trying to explain rental contracts and answer questions about repairs, it’s easy to overlook the most important thing in front of us: the kids.

I remember playing my first musical instrument. It was a recorder, which might be the lamest instrument of all time. It was definitely the least impressive one to start out with. So, when several elementary music teachers began to integrate ukuleles into their classrooms as an alternative first instrument, it really excited me. I’ve had a long love affair with ukuleles, and I have a nice little collection started. (Someday, I’m going to get Andy Powers from Taylor Guitars to build me one—just wait and see.)

Last week, I got to deliver 25 red Mahalo ukuleles to the students at Millersburg Elementary School in Millersburg OH, where I live. I’ve delivered plenty of things to schools before, but it’s usually after hours and it’s rarely to elementary classes; this, therefore, was a treat. I wasn’t really anticipating that, either, as mornings aren’t my best time of day. But there’s nothing quite so rewarding as seeing 25 kids jump up and yell when you walk into a room. It was a sight to see!

I should mention that I had an “in” with the kids: My wife teaches vocal music in the same school district, and many of the students have seen her high school musicals or they’ve seen the choirs perform. Also, the woman who teaches the elementary class is a longtime friend whose two daughters were involved in choir. When she said, “This is Mrs. O’Brien’s husband,” it got me some decent “ooohs.”

Immediately, the kids wanted to see the ukuleles. I felt sort of guilty for destroying whatever the lesson plan had been for that day. I cut open the giant box and took out one, so we could show it off. It was super fun. I answered a few questions and gave a few high fives before extracting myself so I could drive to Wooster OH to our main store. (I left it to that poor teacher to try to wrangle those kids back into learning something.) On the drive to the store, the morning’s experience really made me think.

Every day, we have opportunities to connect not only with our customers, but also with their kids. Some kids are a hassle: They come in unsupervised, and they can’t keep their hands off things. It’s easy to see them as an annoyance or as something we have to tolerate for the sake of our “real” customers. We roll our eyes and try our best to keep them from touching all the merchandise. But, the truth is, we’re missing a huge opportunity to connect with the next generation of potential customers and, possibly, earn their loyalty early in life.

Does that guarantee they won’t grow up and buy everything from Amazon? No, it doesn’t. But, if we’re willing to take a few minutes and be more inclusive toward children and teens, despite knowing they might not have money or be with a parent who does, we can begin to build lasting relationships with them over time.

David, our Educational Manager, is amazing with beginning band students. It might be his long history of teaching brass at the College of Wooster, or maybe he just likes to see young kids who are excited about their first instrument. But, he always takes the time to answer not only questions from parents, but also those from students. He’ll show them how to put their instrument together, talk to them about their teacher and remember their name every time they walk in the store. (Incidentally, that’s a skill I wish I had. I’m terrible with names.)

Noah, who works in our sales department, is especially good at talking with up-and-coming musicians in their late teens. He’s a gear head, and he can talk about bass pickups and pedals all day. In fact, he’ll demo every pedal in the case, regardless of whether someone is a real buyer. And you know what? Eventually, he or she does become a buyer, because that person can come into our store to hang out, try things and feel like there’s a friend there.

In sales, we talk a lot about being able to cultivate relationships; sometimes, though, we forget that relationships don’t begin at adulthood. We can develop bonds with customers over long periods of time, starting when they’re young students and lasting a lifetime. My favorite example of this is Mike, who’s one of our guitar teachers. Mike started to take guitar lessons at our store as a young student, who was just beginning and excited to learn some sweet riffs. Over the years, he grew as a musician, survived a high school garage band and went on to college to study guitar. Now, he himself is actually teaching lessons to beginners, as he puts himself through college. I feel incredibly old writing that, but it’s also gratifying to know that our store helped shape his path in life. He’s not just some customer; he’s part of our store family.

I talk a lot about being a destination…about being independent and giving customers the kind of personal experience that makes them want to patronize our stores. I mean for that to include everyone who walks in the door, especially the young beginners. Every student who walks through the door to take lessons…every kid who’s picking out his or her first trumpet…every teenager who lurks around the tube amps represents an opportunity to grow our customer base and ensure the longevity of our business. And, believe me, they’re not getting that online or from big-box stores.

How do you promote interaction between your staff and younger musicians? Write to me at

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