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Taking lessons from R.I.T. Music

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THE FEED

How "one of Grand Rapids' most respected music shops" is still thriving after 25 years.
Phill Kulas, managing the floor.

/Courtesy of Tyler Steimle

Phill Kulas, managing the floor.


 /Courtesy of Tyler Steimle

 /Courtesy of Tyler Steimle

Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported

Frank Nawrot, lead singer and guitarist for local band Absinthe, and a lifetime Grand Rapids resident, started playing guitar as a teenager.

He grew up in the Creston district and took lessons from long-time R.I.T. Music guitar instructor and Berklee College of Music graduate, Steve Lechtanski.

Now Nawrot writes all of his own music, plays dozens of shows per year in and around the Grand Rapids area, and has earned a degree in music from Grand Rapids Community College.

Nawrot says he bought his favorite guitar from R.I.T. many years ago and that the staff encourage him to bring it in anytime he has a problem to troubleshoot it for free.

"R.I.T. is my favorite music store," said Nawrot. "[They] just generally make you feel more comfortable."

Nawrot is not the only member of the Grand Rapids community of musicians to have come up through R.I.T. Music.

The store has been in business for over 25 years.

R.I.T. Music literally began in the basement of drummer Jim Ritenour in the early 80s and was known as RIT Drums. Current owner Paul Militello, who bought out Ritenour in 1989 when he decided to retire, opted to keep the name and reevaluate the business model.

“We became friends and he wanted to retire,” said Militello, “so I ended up buying him out. Then we expanded the concept [and] got out of the house, because its time had passed and we wanted a full-on shop.”

The very first location was on Division Avenue, just south of 36th Street, and before long it relocated a few blocks north to the old Keyboard World building.

“We had our best years there,” said Militello. “We were the top music store in the state. We had articles written about us [and] won awards—it was kind of the heyday, you know?”

In 2003 Militello moved the store again, this time to the north end of Grand Rapids, and shared a building with Middleton's Music on the corner of 4 Mile Rd. and Plainfield.

When Middleton's Music dissolved, R.I.T. Music took over the building and absorbed the majority of the Middleton's teaching staff.

Last year Militello decided the time was right to devote more space to lesson rooms and have everything on one floor, as opposed to the upstairs/downstairs configuration of the building on 4 Mile and Plainfield.

The current location is a few blocks north, next to Anna's House restaurant. It has been newly remodeled to focus on offering private instruction in guitar, bass, drums, piano, voice, saxophone, trumpet, violin, and various woodwind instruments.

Of course, R.I.T. still sells a wide variety of guitars, basses, acoustic guitars, drums, P.A. equipment, and band and orchestra instruments.

"That's what the independents have is repairs, restrings, guys that know how to fix your guitar, lessons—it's huge," said Militello. "It's the lifeblood of our business."

"It seems logical that if you're going to sell instruments you're going to want people to learn how to play them," said Phill Kulas, Grand Rapids resident and store manager of R.I.T. Music for 12 years, "but that's not necessarily in everybody's marketing plan. So much stuff has moved to internet warehousing. They'll sell you a guitar, but they don't care if you take it out of the box. It's out of their hands."

This nurturing of R.I.T.'s customers has always set it apart from other instrument retailers. That attitude is not only a product of Militello's vision, but also of R.I.T.'s now legendary history of notable employees, including AJ Dunning (The Verve Pipe), Lou Musa (The Verve Pipe, The Rockit King), Joel Ferguson (Papa Vegas, Miles to Mars), Curt Hines (Union Guns, Cold Cash Machine, Molly, Merry Bomb), Phill Kulas (Moto, Fred Thompson Trio, Bowery), and many others.

"That's been sort of part of Paul's plan I think," said Kulas,"to get people that are a motivated part of the music community, people that are locally committed. I think that definitely adds an air of legitimacy to the store."

One of R.I.T. Music's most accomplished guitar instructors, Phil Marsh, a former professor of jazz guitar at Grand Valley State University, has been teaching at R.I.T. Music for 8 years. He is the band leader and guitarist for touring R&B horn band The Hip Pocket.

"One of my focuses at GVSU was to [teach students] to be players," said Marsh. "If someone wants to just learn some chords and have some fun then I approach it that way. That's my job, to make it interesting."

Kulas said that brand new students seem to hit a wall after about two months. He feels that private lessons make the difference for beginners more often than not.

"A benefit of lessons would be getting you over the hump to where you are someplace at the end of that two month [period]," said Kulas. "Once you hit that point people are encouraged to keep pushing themselves because they feel there's been some accomplishment made. I think that unless they take a few lessons [they might feel like] they didn't really give it a good shake."

The Grand Rapids store also services K-12 schools in the Northview, Forest Hills, and Rockford districts by offering band and orchestra instrument rentals, sales, and repairs.

Band and Orchestra department employee Hannah Pribble said, "Our main objective is to show people that we do offer the same quality service in band and orchestra instruments as those other [bigger] stores. We just try to get our name out there and show people that we do offer good repairs and good instruments for affordable prices."

R.I.T. Music also has a location in Holland.

It has been a long evolution since the basement drum shop of Ritenour, but Militello and company are more optimistic than ever.

"I really believe people would prefer to shop at a store like this," said Militello. "I think that's part of our business model that does work: Phill Kulas, Scott Mikulski, Scott Keisema, and Randy Perkins have been with R.I.T. for a minimum of 10 years. So, there's a family. We've stuck around."


steimlet

Web Designer. Writer. Musician. Dad.

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