Final notes for Va. music shop specializing in kids’ band instruments

Many parents would agree it’s hard to call the first few notes a child makes on a rented band instrument “music,” but it’s a necessary step toward eventually learning how to play.

“The first sounds on a lot of instruments can really be off-putting,” said Sheila Burns, owner of Roberson’s Music, which will close permanently Dec. 23, after more than 40 years in Fredericksburg and Richmond, Virginia.

Burns and her first husband, Harry Roberson, started the business as a small repair shop for area high schools. It eventually “went out of control, where we were offering rentals, repairs, sales, lessons — the whole nine yards,” she said Friday.

For the last several decades, a large part of Burns’ job — and joy — has been introducing children to music.

Kids in school generally get the option “to join either band or orchestra, depending on what the school systems allow,” said Burns. “We go to schools, and demonstrate the various instruments by a professional that can play the instrument properly, so the child has the opportunity to hear it live.”

Which leads to what Burns calls an instrument “fitting,” where the students get the chance to try to make a sound: “We’re putting the instrument into their hands, up to their lips.”

Students and their parents get some guidelines on which brass instruments might work best, based on the child’s ability to blow into the mouthpiece.

Tooth and lip structure and dexterity are key, said Burns, and some mouths aren’t well-suited for certain mouthpieces: “If it’s something they really have their heart set on, sometimes they can overcome it. Other times, it’s better to slightly encourage them in another direction.”

Although the initial honks, scratches and empty puffs of air can be frustrating, young musicians are eventually able to play what would be considered a note. “You just see their eyes light up. Smiles come to their faces, and the excitement starts, and that’s when you know you’ve found the right instrument for them.”

For a brass instrument, “Making a good sound depends on breath control, breathing down from the diaphragm, not just a shallow breath,” Burns said.

As the beginning student tries to coax notes from the new instrument, “the parent listening to their child, and encouraging them them to practice and keep at it, is a major factor,” she said.

“Typically, by the end of the first couple of months, you’re starting to recognize the songs they’re playing, and you’re like, ‘Oh, I know what that is,'” she laughs.

In the last few days of the business she’s run for more than four decades, Burns is reuniting with former students who are now music educators. Students receiving private lessons have had time to find new teachers.

“Music is going to be very alive and well in Fredericksburg,” she said.

Even as music trends, technology and culture have changed, Burns said, learning to play a musical instrument has always been a microcosm of life.

“To play an instrument you have to set a goal,” said Burns. “Very much like life — if you want to have success, you’ve got to put the work in.”

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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