Editor’s Note: “Front and Center” is brought to you by the Women’s International Music Network (The WiMN). The interviews showcase accomplished women who work in the music and audio industries, spotlighting successful female performers, manufacturers, retailers, educators, managers, publicists and others. Visit thewimn.com to view the weekly interviews and to learn more about how to be featured.
Take a trip back in time. Can you remember a pivotal moment 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 studied piano and voice, and as an adult, she went on to sing in bands and co-found Mike Risko Music Store in Ossining, N.Y., 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’s supported them over the years, Risko heads several charitable and fun initiatives for local customers and volunteers her time to further music education.
The Women’s International Music Network: You’ve had a lifelong passion for music that infl uenced your career and philanthropic endeavors. Can you recall an early childhood experience that sparked your love of music?
Miriam Risko: 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 to sing. My first-grade teacher had a piano in her classroom and would teach us songs. She worked hard to integrate music into the classroom, even though she wasn’t a music teacher. In fourth grade, there was a talent show in which I sang. 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 sixth grade, I was involved in local professional theater. Between attending performing arts camps in the summer and being a contestant in the Miss N.Y. National Teenager pageant, I realized how much I loved performing. I continued my musical studies throughout high school and college, worked as a singer in a local band and performed with community theaters.
The WiMN: Your musical pursuits expanded as an adult, when you and your husband, Mike, met. What are some of the things you worked on together?
Risko: 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. 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, bulletin boards and ads to develop awareness. Mike and I would hang signs all over town to generate buzz. Eventually, we rented more space and added teachers and lesson rooms. We even rented an additional floor (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. Mike and I are fortunate that we’ve always worked as a team. We love creating ideas together that’ll 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.
The WiMN: How did you and Mike decide to open Mike Risko Music Store, and what unique touch do you offer to differentiate it from other music stores?
Risko: We built Mike Risko Music School from the ground up, beginning in 1997, and it has evolved greatly over the years. In 2009, we bought a building up the street from where our music school was located and moved our operation there. 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 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. We’ve even delivered instruments to customers in the local gym parking lot, at the town pool or at the supermarket! We stay open late to accommodate customers, FaceTime with them to explain lesson assignments and try to be as available as possible. I think our customers have come to expect that level of attention, and we are thrilled to be able to provide it, even as the store has grown.
The WiMN: What are some of the things you love best about owning a music store?
Risko: Without a doubt, it’s building relationships. The people who come in and out of our store and school are the reason our business is so vibrant. 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.
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, or the local farmer’s market, or just trying to create and excite more budding musicians, our business gives us a platform to make a difference, and that’s the reason we’re here. We’re proud to be recognized by NAMM as one of the top 100 music stores in the world for the past five consecutive years. We’ve 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.
The WiMN: And now, as a well-established business in your community, you’ve been giving back. Can you share some of your charitable activities?
Risko: We strongly believe in giving back to the community. We are here because of the community’s support, and we are grateful for it. We support community events and [give back] through our program, Risko Music Gives Back. Community groups and local schools can request live music or a musical program for their events. We’re involved in hundreds of these events, free of charge, because it allows us to bring music to our community without any funding concerns by the groups. And in many cases, we’ve donated our earnings from music events back to local charities, because we believe so strongly in giving back to our community, where we’re raising our own children.
Not long ago, I founded the local “Make Music Day” for Ossining. 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 had 26 bands at 26 locations around the community. We even added “Make Music Day Winter” to offer even more musical opportunities.
The WiMN: 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?
Risko: 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 comfortable so that females of all ages can come into the store and envision themselves as future musicians. 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 seriously as someone who can set an example for young females, and it gives me 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. I hope to inspire a younger generation to embrace their love for music, realize they can accomplish anything in the music world, and be part of a growing and changing industry. I’m excited that my 12-year-old daughter is a drummer, and I enjoy watching her pursue music. Over the years, I’ve met so many amazing women through NAMM who own music stores (like Cindy Cook of Candyman Strings and Things, Tracy Leenman of Musical Innovations and the owners of San Diego Music Studio), and I think they’re rock stars in our industry and an inspiration to me and other female music school and store owners.
The WiMN: In closing, what advice would you offer younger musicians who are starting out?
Risko: 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.