Through good times and bad, Joanne Ryan keeps coming back to the guitar

Published 4:07 pm Thursday, September 7, 2017

The dramatic melody of the final death scene in the famous opera Madame Butterfly echoed through the house awaking a young girl in the morning and laying the foundation for a lifelong love affair with music.  

The music eventually changed from the sounds of the classic opera to the folk music of Judy Collins, Carole King and Joan Baez as the young girl’s love of music grew and flourished.

The classical music of her childhood and the folk songs of her teens mix together into harmonies as Joanne Ryan strums the guitar that has been her constant companion for more than 50 years. She closes her eyes as her hands dance across the strings with a mind of their own, when a note sings out of tune and she adjusts the tuning head ever so slightly without ever missing a beat. The well-worn wood of the guitar shows the stains and scratches of a life spent making music.

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Ryan picked up a guitar for the first time in seventh grade and has poured her life into the instrument ever since.

“Music has been the through line in my life,” she said. “At 67, it is the thing that has always been the anchor.

“As soon as the guitar came that was it. It was fall in love at first sight.”

Ryan is a teacher at the Fine Arts Conservatory in Vicksburg where she teaches students to play guitar.

Her first guitar actually belonged to her sister, who had brought the instrument home with her from a retreat to Mexico.

“I was born in the 50s,” Ryan said. “It was the resurrection of all the folk music artists. Bleaker Street, you had Judy Collins and Bob Dillon.

“I kind of commandeered the guitar and my mother went out and bought another for me. My mission at that time was to play as good as Judy Collins or Joan Baez.”

Ryan enrolled herself in a class to learn to play and practiced until her fingers developed blisters and ached with a constant pain.

“I signed up for the adult education course even though I was 12, and I signed up for the advanced even though I didn’t know anything,” Ryan said. “I signed up because I figured beginners would be way too slow. I signed up, and Murray Phillips said you’re going to have to practice some, and I said ‘I will, I will. Please let me stay.’”

Her passion for folk music developed into desire to learn to play Flamenco music, a style developed in southern Spain. She went searching for a teacher to help her learn the challenging Flamenco style and found her way to a jazz guitarist.

“I went in and he said ‘what do you want to play,’ and I said I want to play flamenco music,” Ryan said. “He said, ‘well, I’m going to teach you classical guitar, because if you learn classical you can play anything you want.’ That is how I learned to read music and I learned classical technique.”

When she was in eighth grade, the original guitar was replaced by a Carlo Greco Guild Mark V, which she continues to play to this day, 55 years later.

“I remember it,” Ryan said of the day she picked out the guitar. “My mother and father took me down to the city to Manny’s Music, and I guess I must have drove them crazy because I spent about three or four hours just playing instruments, and I always came back to this one.”

Three years after she first started to play, Ryan began teaching lessons for the first time. Teaching music and performing have since became her life’s work.

She spent years working for the book publishing company Silver Burdett as an author working on their music textbooks.

While working for Summer Burdett she taught a continuing education course for teachers during the summer where she met a group of teachers from Mississippi who invited her to come check out their home state.

As she tells it, the story goes that she “stepped off the plane, was able to breath fresh air, caught a big fish, saw a tree and that was it and she decided to stay.”

A native New Yorker, Ryan jokingly calls herself a “damn Yankee,” but after 30 years in Mississippi she has been declared an honorary southerner by friends.

“I didn’t come all at once,” Ryan said of her journey south. “I came down on a sabbatical for a year, and I just realized how rich it was in music in the South and that I could own property.”

Her life in Mississippi has been defined by music. She has performed with various orchestras, is a member of string groups that perform at various events and has taught countless students during her tenure at Bowmar Avenue Elementary School and the Fine Arts Conservatory.

“Music is music, so when I teach here the goal is for kids to think music,” Ryan said. “Kids are very divergent. Some will like country, some learn rock n’ roll. The principles are the same and good technique is good technique.

“I’m always looking to give my kids good technique. If you have good technique, it doesn’t matter if you are playing jazz, or picking at a country song or playing classical.”

It is the music that keeps her coming back. Through the good times and the bad, the music and familiar feel of a guitar in her hands has remained the one constant.

“It is like if you have a book you are never lonely,” she said. “If you have an instrument you are OK.”