Innovation comes in all shapes and sizes, and for Mike and Miriam Risko, owners of Mike Risko Music in Ossining, their new and exciting idea was to offer online video lessons linking teachers with students around the world.
The real-time video lessons were quickly noticed by the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) in Nashville, Tennessee, and they named the Riskos not only one of the three most innovative music stores in the world but one of the top three finalists for NAMM Dealer of the Year. NAMM has 14,400 members and is a known global association of music retailers. The Dealer of the Year Award honors retail music dealers who are strongly committed to their customers and their local communities by making music accessible to everyone.
The award put Mike Risko Music in the same class with two large musical instrument stores, Thomann Music in Bavaria Germany and Cosmo Music in Canada, considered the largest musical-instrument store in North America. The Riskos have attended the July NAMM annual convention for a number of years and haved awarded among the top 100 Dealers for six years.
“That’s what we expected this time at the convention,” said Miriam Risko. “We were there in Nashville and when they announced these top tier awards we were totally surprised.”
The Riskos are like an institution in the Westchester music world. For 25 years they’ve established themselves as a music school where students of all ages can learn to play instruments from guitar to drums, piano, voice, violin, viola, cello, brass or woodwinds and can perform with professional musicians. They average 500 to 1,000 young and adult students yearly depending on the many different programs offered.
As a store, it’s the go-to place for musical instruments and gear. Their 3,000-square-foot music building combines the store, the school, eight teaching rooms and a spacious performance space replete with a stage, snack bar and small round tables. Mike Risko teaches adult bands, which he said is a rich and rewarding experience.
“I have adults come and say they always dreamt of being in a band but were unsure if they could do it. I try to convince them to play and usually they give it a try. When they work together for six or eight weeks and then perform, they tell me ‘I’m so happy you asked me to do this.’”
Covering the walls in the performance space are a plethora of plaques and certificates honoring the business and school over the years. Among them are Westchester Magazine’s Best of Westchester Best Music Store, Westchester’s 2018 Ultimate Shopping Guide for store and music school, the HulaFrog Most Loved Music Lessons 2018 Westchester Putnam, Small Business Awards General Excellence, Village of Ossining Proclamation For Commitment and Dedication to Community 2014.
The online video lessons started when one of Risko’s drum teachers moved to California and his students wanted to continue to study with him.
“We installed software so he could connect with his students,” said Risko. “In a special room there’s a flat screen monitor, speakers and two cameras which is the same set up in the teacher’s room in California. They are virtually in the same room.”
The system was also used when students couldn’t get to the school. It wasn’t long after they set up the on-line lessons the Riskos found a growing number of requests from all over the world to study with teachers online.
“By using the Zoom video platform, teachers and students can connect and give and receive instruction,“ Mike Risko explained. “The lessons are recorded and the file is sent to the student.”
The success of the online video lessons helped both the retail business and the school.
“We have become part of the digital age,” said Miriam Risko. “It opens us up to the next level and gives us a vision.”
Miriam Risko has headed up the school’s popular musical theater program, which has attracted hundreds of students and staged about 20 shows since it was first launched in 2015. “But my real passion is for musical theatre,” she said. “We put on four shows a year, three performances for each show and they are free. It gives kids an opportunity to be in a live show.” They recently performed Rock of Ages.
Both Miriam and Mike were born and grew up in Ossining and Yorktown respectively and are formally trained musicians. Miriam is a pianist and also the vocalist in the Mike Risko Band and Mike excels on guitar. They live in Ossining and have two children ages 13 and 15. Their ties to the community are strong and reaching out to area schools, libraries, senior centers and elsewhere is an ongoing effort to engage youngsters and adults in a musical activity.
“Last year we put out a call for people to donate their unused and unwanted instruments,” said Miriam Risko. “The idea was we would repair the instruments, give them to the Ossining Children’s Center and give free lessons to the kids every other week.”
Once the youngsters learned a few songs, people who donated the instruments were invited to hear them play.
“It was so nice to get instruments into the hands of lots of kids,” she said.