Michael Leonard is the antithesis of the starving musician. At the pinnacle of his performing career several decades ago, he was touring internationally and was called the “Heifetz of the Saxophone.” He performed as a soloist and guest artist at thousands of professional engagements, and was an orchestral saxophonist for the Boston Symphony and the Boston Pops. Leonard was also a music conservatory teacher, and author of a saxophone technique book. When he wasn’t playing, he relaxed by fixing and refurbishing horns. It was this “quasi-hobby” that he enjoyed the most, and he started repairing instruments for students and instructors, including local band directors.
So when Leonard tired of touring, he built up his business as a repair technician. One day, while talking with a music rep, the man suggested purchasing and renting out instruments to music students. After all, Leonard had the talent for maintaining woodwinds and brass, and the connections to local school districts. Why not capitalize on it and start a musical instrument rental business?
Today, Leonard’s Music in Bedford rents more than 4,000 instruments to students in 30 communities. The shop is located in a 3,600 square foot traditional Cape with black shutters and a red door, with an American flag flying outside. Leonard says he wanted to operate in a commercially-zoned house so that customers would, well, feel at home
From May to September, the house is crowded with instruments. It’s almost like a bad musician’s joke: Why was the trumpet in the bathroom? Because there was no room for it in the kitchen. This year alone, Leonard purchased 2,300 instruments – hundreds of flutes, clarinets, and saxophones. They have to be stored somewhere, so the cases are stacked in the hallways, near the refrigerator and microwaves, in the basement, and in upstair offices.
“We can easily put 100 flutes in a six-foot area, but one string bass could use up that entire space,” says Leonard, so instruments are organized for easy access and by popularity, with flute and clarinet rooms, sax room, and percussion rooms. And that saxophone in the bathtub? It’s there to be cleaned, sterilized, and — if needed — repaired.
The Globe spoke with Leonard about making money renting instruments.
“I’ve always wanted to be a musician. I honestly can’t remember wanting to be anything else. There were always musicians in my house, because my father was a jazz pianist. This was when there was a lot of work at restaurants and cocktail bars. Today, you’d have a hard time finding a pianist or combo anywhere. I started playing the saxophone when I was nine after it was demoed in my fourth grade class. I added clarinet and flute to become more versatile, but was basically stung by the saxophone and [it] got me to where I am today.
“I rent instruments like some people rent cars. It’s my way of making money but there’s a loss accrued also, because instruments don’t last very long and have a shelf life, especially when students are using them. This is a very competitive market – there were four to five rental companies that were here before I showed up on the scene, and it was kind of hard for me to break in. I had stashed away money while I was performing and basically spent all of that to purchase our first instruments. The first 10 years we grew more and more, gaining new school systems but also paying six figures a year to replenish our instrument stock. The instruments do recoup their cost, maybe two to three times what I paid for it, but it’s not all gravy — I have to pay my bills, mortgage, taxes, salaries, insurance, and more.
“Some companies rent stuff out till literally it falls apartt. We don’t do that. Once they’re not playing the way they should, I get rid of them, donating them to school systems or other charities.
“Not a day or week goes by when there’s some sort of instrument calamity, whether it’s a violin falling down three flights of stairs, a little brother jumping on a cello, or a dog eating a mouth piece. Accidents happen. Some kids get the mouthpiece stuck on a trumpet and take pliers out of their dad’s toolbox and basically destroy it with a pair of pliers. Parents are horrified, and so am I, but these things happen when you’re renting thousands of instruments.
“As for myself, I’ve had my own horn for 30 to 40 years. As long as they’re maintained, instruments can last a long time.”