The music man: Cullman’s Tony Willingham has taught generations of musicians

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Tony Willingham, of Tony’s School of Music, poses for a photo on Monday, Jan. 7, 2019. This year marks 50 years of teaching for Willingham. (Christy Perry for The Cullman Tribune)

CULLMAN – For half a century, Tony Willingham has been teaching music in Cullman. Willingham began playing the guitar as a teen in West Point and that led to a career he continues to love. He began teaching music in 1969 and opened Tony’s School of Music in 1972.

Willingham began teaching lessons while he was still in high school. When he turned 18, he opened his music school, originally located a block or two behind Johnny’s Bar-B-Q, and moved it to its current location (1800 Fourth St. SW) in 1976. During that time, he earned his Associate Degree in Music from what is now Calhoun Community College.

When asked if he ever played in his own band after high school, Willingham laughed, “I played until I was in my 30s, but that’s a young man’s game. I tell people, you don’t get paid to play. You get paid to move equipment.”

Over Willingham’s 50 years of teaching, he has taught thousands of students.

He said, “I’ve taught third generation and maybe even fourth generation.”

He teaches 19 instruments including vocals, sharing, “I don’t play brass or woodwind instruments. I was never in the marching band. I was afraid I couldn’t learn how to march.” 

Piano, guitar, violin, drums and vocals are what Willingham says are the most popular, but he said that can change based on what the music trends are at the time.

He explained, “More people wanted to play banjo after the release of ‘O Brother, Where Art Though?” and after ‘Deliverance.’”

Through teaching, Willingham said, “I’ve had several students that have made a living with music. I’ve introduced a lot of people to how to play with bands and who play with bands now. I have students who have gone on to teach music, too. Music lessons are a gift that you can give that lasts a lifetime. What else can you give that lasts a lifetime? You can teach sports but eventual you can’t do it physically. Music is a great way for parents and their kids to spend time together. It’s a great way to bond.”

Willingham is passionate about the benefits of learning music and being taught correctly.

“I think young teenage boys have a little feistiness in them that needs channeling. Music is a great way to channel that. Music helps with focus. Everyone wants to be good at something. My job is to know what a student needs. The aggravation about learning from your friends, they teach you starting with what they are currently learning and they might have been playing for two years. So, you are not ready for two-year material. We start someone from where they are at and start stair-stepping.” 

Willingham also pointed out another great advantage of music lessons.

“I get parents who are worried about listening to all the practicing, especially from drummers. I tell them, you will know where your child is at and exactly what they are doing. My mother used to say that about when I was playing guitar at 12 and 1 in the morning and her friends asked her how she could stand it.”

Never having been a drinker, smoker or a partygoer,  Willingham smiled, “You don’t have to live the music to play the music.”

As for retirement, he joked, “As long as my health is good and my mental acuity is good I’ll be here. I’d drive my woman crazy if I was at the house all the time.” 

Willingham currently teaches anywhere from 65-95 students private lessons. Many of those are parent and child group lessons. He teaches six days a week. Tony’s School of Music also sells new and used instruments, including consignment. To learn more, visit www.tonysschoolofmusic.net/.

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