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D.C.'s Last Full-Service Music Store Helps Customers Make Beautiful Music

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Myrna Sislen thinks her greatest accomplishment as owner of Middle C Music is establishing a place that the neighbors and the city want. In 2012, she celebrates her 10th year as the store's owner.
Heather Taylor
Myrna Sislen thinks her greatest accomplishment as owner of Middle C Music is establishing a place that the neighbors and the city want. In 2012, she celebrates her 10th year as the store's owner.

Can one phone call really change your life? If you're Myrna Sislen, owner of Middle C Music, Washington, D.C.'s only full-service music store, the answer might just be yes — especially if you can learn to trust your instincts.

Ten years ago, Sislen had already spent decades enjoying two successful careers simultaneously: as both a college professor at George Washington University, heading the classical guitar department, and as a local musician. At George Washington University, "I had many, many students and a concert series," says Sislen. "It was a wonderful time to be there."

And as a working musician, she'd been a part of the Washington Guitar Quintet, performing with the legendary guitarist, Charlie Byrd. But then Sislen learned that her neighborhood music store, tucked in an office building in Tenleytown, would be closing. Suddenly, she felt compelled to help save it.

"Something came over me and said, 'You have got to do something to keep this store open.' I didn't know exactly what, but I knew if it closed, we would be looking at another mattress store, or a cell phone store. Not that there's anything wrong with those, but we seemed to have a lot of them on this block already."

Drawing on the same energy and determination and skill that helped her to become a professional tap dancer, Sislen began contacting people. At first, she got no takers. But then she got a phone call from someone with a unique proposal.

"The previous owner called me and said, 'This guy has walked in here. The two of you would be my dream team. Why don't you come and meet him?' We met on Saturday, got corporately married the following Tuesday and signed the papers that Friday."

Sislen and her new partner divided up the work: she would do the marketing and her partner would handle the entrepreneurial side. When that didn't happen and the partnership ended, it surprised her.

"In music, when you're partners with people, you usually stay with them 'til they die, but in business evidently, it's very common for it not to work," she says. "And it didn't."

The beat goes on

When the partnership ended, Sislen realized that she was still interested in the store, and decided to go solo. After a few years of continuing to teach and run the store, Sislen decided that it was too much. So she retired from her job at GW, to focus on running Middle C Music.

Sislen's decision to transition from classical guitarist to entrepreneur hinged on two factors: First, Charlie Byrd, the legendary guitarist had passed away and she and the members of the Washington Guitar Quintet were at an impasse. Second, she says though she enjoyed every minute of her career as a college professor, she decided it was time to retire.

"I felt my mojo was kind of used up," she says. "I think just in my life, I was ready for something new. Something different. And not just from GW. That's why when this presented itself, I went through the door."

And it worked. Since 2002, Middle C Music, which started small, has doubled in size. This year, it celebrates 10 years of operation under Sislen's ownership. In March, the D.C. City Council passed a resolution recognizing the store as a community resource.

"It was so heartwarming and unexpected," says Sislen. "I was overwhelmed!"

A new outlet for musical creativity

From Bach, Gershwin and Mozart, to Coltrane, Lady Gaga and Green Day... from music lessons to renting and selling instruments... running Middle C Music is a busy job.

Despite spending decades as an artist, she doesn't miss the creativity of a musician's life, because running Middle C Music offers a creative outlet in its own way.

"It has enabled me to pursue music in a different way," she says. "I have hopefully created a different kind of music store. I wanted to create a place where everyone who came would know that what is inside of them would be helped out."

And sometimes that means discovering music you didn't know you'd love.

"I wasn't even thinking about playing classical guitar," says Brendan Levy, one of Sislen's former students. "Myrna has a lot of enthusiasm for teaching and for introducing you to a lot of new things."

She encouraged him to try classical guitar and he says, "I immediately loved it. Not only did I learn classical guitar, I also learned flamenco guitar, I learned some Brazilian styles of guitar. It really broadened my musical knowledge a lot. It got me interested in Brazil. I traveled to Brazil. I traveled to Spain. I would never have developed an interest or taste, if it weren't for her enthusiasm and her constantly expanding my horizons and interests in music."

Over the years, Middle C Music has become a family affair in the Levy household.

"I had two kids taking lessons," says Levy's mother Keily. "Now I've got both kids out of the house and it's my turn. I decided to take voice lessons for the last couple of years. On my birthday, I decided to start piano lessons. My comfort zone is Middle C."

Jamie Pound, whose son Jordan has been taking guitar lessons at Middle C Music for several years, agrees. "Myrna is just a woman of almost boundless energy. She finds new ways to get people in, new ways to introduce people to music, to keep them going in music, to keep them growing with music. I think, frankly it's her energy and her level of commitment to people having music in their lives that makes the store go."

And Sislen in turn credits the community for the store's success.

"If the neighborhood did not want us to be here, we would be gone," she says. "And that is my greatest accomplishment -- to make it a place that the neighbors want. That's really, really important."

In remembering the path to her newest career, in Sislen's mind's eye, the image is clear. "A train stopped, the doors opened and I got on the train. And I figured, I'll just ride it and see where it goes."

Spoken like a woman who's learned to follow her instincts.


[Music: "Heart and Soul (Complete) from Piano]

Photos: Middle C Music

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