Those who do and teach


guitar-teachers 75We study music together, but the instruments teach us more than we teach them.






guitar-teachers 500

Have you ever wanted to take music lessons or wonder what it would be like to teach an instrument? I know two musicians who have taken on the challenge of passing on the gift and passion of music.

Tommy Halloran is a St. Louis native, father of two, and a full-time working musician. Bred and buttered on classic jazz and soul, he has incorporated elements of each into his own distinct musical voice. Bryan Ranney is also a father, teacher, and working musician.

Where do you teach? Do you have a studio or teaching space?

BR: I spend most of my teaching time with my two-year-old son. Pretty much wherever we are, he’s learning something new, and I’m providing corollary instruction. We’ve almost mastered, “Don’t put that in your mouth.” He likes to play all of the instruments and has a rudimentary understanding of English. I do house calls for my guitar and mandolin students. I’ve also rented space at the Folk School before. Once in a blue moon, somebody comes over to my house to study.

TH: For the most part, I travel to my students’ homes to teach. I am working on a 20-lesson series that I will offer in my home — reducing my carbon footprint and all that jazz!

What instruments do you teach?

BR: Many of my students play guitar. Some play mandolin and some sing. We study music together, but the instruments teach us more than we teach them.

TH: I teach guitar. Although I spent years as a bass guitarist in various bands around town, my years away from the bass have led to my hearing rhythms differently. I find I am no longer satisfied with my bass playing. Maybe you could recommend a good bass teacher for me?!

What are your top five musical inspirations for playing music or for teaching?

BR: 1. John Cusack, 2. High Fidelity, 3. Tommy Halloran, 4. Girls, 5. Fame and Fortune. Seriously, though, music herself inspires me. My family plays music together. I play music with my friends.

TH: I play and teach because I love music. Beautiful subtle things happen when one chord moves to another chord. I find meaning in these things, personally. Although I couldn’t express these things coherently to a student, I can see when a student finds meaning in it for himself/herself, and that’s a wonderful feeling of accomplishment. I learn a great deal in teaching. Just going over basics and explaining them in different ways helps me to understand music differently — time and again this happens. I also play and teach because I believe I have a human responsibility to make my living doing what I love.

What are your three greatest strengths?

B.R: As a teacher or a person, I listen and play. I write every day. When I have faith, I feel strong.

T.H.: I think my strengths as a teacher are my 20 years of real world experience as a working musician. I can generally help a student find what works for him/her. I also make it a point not to get hung up on perfection. That’s unattainable. Progress is the goal. I bring a genuine love of music to the stage and the practice room. I’ve been told by many that I would burn out, but I’ve been going strong for decades now and really just can’t get enough of it.

What are the qualities as an instructor you strive to improve?

B.R.: Knowing when to talk and when to listen is pretty much all there is to it. Sometimes I get it right, sometimes not. But I’m always learning.

T.H.: As an instructor, I could be more well versed in the written language of music, but I’m working on it. Because I played exclusively my own music for so long, I never learned the clichés that most people associate with guitar. It’s a strength on one hand; on the other, it’s a gaping hole in my knowledge.

What is the most satisfying thing for you about teaching?

B.R.: I like creative people and I love watching musicians discover new ideas.

T.H.: I feel a lot of satisfaction when a student really catches fire about the instrument. It’s immediately apparent and infectious. I walk out of those lessons a few feet off the ground.

What part of teaching do you look the most forward to?

B.R.: Every day is different and every musician is at a different point in their journey. It’s great when I know what they want to learn and how to help them get there.

T.H.: The part of each lesson that I most look forward to is the running of scales, arpeggios, and other fundamentals. These things never get old to me, and I find that every time I sit down to practice them either with a student or on my own, my understanding of the instrument deepens a little more.

What is the biggest challenge in teaching?

B.R.: I think the biggest block to learning is self-doubt. It can be scary to try something new. The smallest leap of faith leads to the biggest payoff. As a rule, I’m more gentle with the adults. They have more negative ideas and have experienced more trauma. Kids can vary based on their personality, but for the most part, they are willing to jump right in and play.

T.H.: Sparking that flame in somebody is the biggest challenge of being an instructor, I find. Really, it’s up to them, and I’m just there to guide them along. Ironically, I find that really slow, dedicated practice of what seem to be super-boring fundamentals seems to be what ignites the interest, most of the time.

What is the strangest experience you’ve had teaching?

B.R.: One time at Boy Scout Camp, when I was teaching swimming merit badge, I accidentally kicked a boy in the face. I was trying to get the attention of another scout who was swimming diagonally with his eyes closed. Their ears were underwater, so my go-to technique was to splash water at them with my foot. One of my better swimmers had already finished, and I didn’t realize he’d moved in front of me. Sometimes it doesn’t pay to be the best. He bled from his mouth for a while, but I gave him extra attention for the rest of the week, so we were pals after that.

T.H.: By and large, my experiences as a guitar-instructor have been pretty ordinary and unremarkable. I do have one student, though, who constantly surprises me with stories of his past. They are personal stories he shared with me, though, and I can’t tell you about them, I’m afraid!

How do you make learning fun? Describe a typical lesson. Do you teach adults kids or both?

B.R.: In order to play, you must have fun. If it isn’t fun, you’re not playing. We play, we talk, we laugh. We develop theories together and make connections. We talk about how to practice and what that means to us. They show me their favorite songs, and I play them my favorites. My youngest formal students are eight. I don’t ask the adults how old they are.

T.H.: This practice of fundamentals is generally how I begin each lesson. Students and teachers both come into the lesson with nerves that need to be calmed. 20 minutes of wax on, wax off really soothes the brain and loosens the fingers. After these drills, I most often will work on tunes with my students. Playing a song from start to finish requires a lot of planning. Chords are tricky. We generally spend the next half-hour playing a song. The last 10 minutes are jam time. We loosen up and very often will play blues. Blues, in my opinion, is critically important, not to mention fun. I teach adults and children. My one pre-requisite is an actual desire to learn. I’m not interested in how quickly this happens, only that the student truly wants it.

Being a working musician how do you feel this enhances your ability to teach and what you teach?

B.R.: I have to perform. I start to go a little crazy if I go too long without clearing out the creative cobwebs. Some of my students are performers. Others are not. We all express ourselves differently. I try to encourage people to have more fun, whatever that means to them. Most of us are too critical, take things too seriously. We scold ourselves to be more responsible. Being too responsible is irresponsible.

T.H.: Being a working musician brings advantages and disadvantages to being a guitar instructor. On the plus side, I have a good idea of what is actually useful to learn. And I have a gazillion stories that illustrate various aspects of being a guitarist. (A great deal of being a working musician has nothing to do with music.) I also know there is more than one way to skin a cat, and what works for me might not be good for somebody else. I don’t get hung up on my way. On the negative side, I am often pulled in a million different directions between gigs, rehearsals, and my own study. I can get a little lost in my own head sometimes, whereas a full-time teacher might not.

Tell me about what you have going on? Or anything else you’d like to add?

B.R.: I’ve been teaching formally since 2010. I specialize in guitar, mandolin, singing, playing rhythm, playing lead, having fun, reading music, songwriting, playing by ear, music theory, jamming skills, and playing and singing at the same time. I perform solo and with several bands: The Mars Rover Band, Elemental Shakedown, ARR!!!, Cree Rider’s Acoustic Family, and The Ranney Family Band. I put out a record with Following the Water in 2012. I just co-produced a record with my dad, Elliott Ranney, called Bellevue Shuffle. I’m really proud of that one. I tweet @BryanRanney and my website is

‘Play, children, play

Write your pages everyday’

T.H.: On track to play 300 shows in St. Louis in 2013 and marking my 20th anniversary as a gigging musician this year, I’ve taught guitar privately and through local shops, music schools, and colleges for over 10 years. Tommy Halloran’s Guerrilla Swing is slated to release their debut CD in January of 2014.

Halloran’s and Ranney’s musical sound is worlds apart but both their honest passion and love for music is apparent when you see them play. I think maybe I need to take some lessons. | DL Hegel

Photos: DL Hegel (left Tommy Halloran, right Bryan Ranney)

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