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John Willingham: Building connections through computers and concerts

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | March 7, 2016

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From the computer screen to the concert hall, Emory IT educational analyst and professional musician John Willingham enjoys interacting with his audience.

By day, John Willingham navigates the world of Information Technology (IT) as an educational analyst, providing technical support to help Emory educators get the most out of the University's Blackboard online learning management system.

Outside of campus — like many in Emory's IT community, he insists — Willingham flexes his creative muscle as a professional musician, picking up freelance gigs at venues ranging from Smith's Olde Bar and Eddie's Attic, to private parties and weddings, regional festivals and fundraisers.

Primarily a guitarist, bassist and singer, Willingham's interests include jazz, rock, blues and classical music. And he's enjoyed performing with a variety of musicians and bands in and around Atlanta.

But among the most meaningful opportunities has been the chance to perform at fundraisers for Children's Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA) and the National Association for Glycogen Storage Disease.

It's a metabolic condition his daughter Olivia was diagnosed with as an infant, and one for which they've found help through Emory Professor Rani Singh, who directs the nutrition section of the Division of Medical Genetics in Emory University School of Medicine's Department of Human Genetics.

Emory Report caught up with Willingham to discuss his thoughts on the link between IT and creative expression and what it's like to be a freelance musician.

Was music an early influence in your life?

I was born in Macon, Georgia, and lived half my childhood there before moving to North Carolina, where I attended high school and college. When I was growing up in the '70s, Macon was known for music. The Allman brothers recorded and lived there. Wet Willie lived there. The Marshall Tucker Band label was there, and in the decade before I came along, Little Richard, Otis Redding, Lena Horne and James Brown all lived or did a lot of playing there. Pretty much every kid I knew had a guitar and knew how to play.

How did you begin performing?

My dad was a musician who mostly played bluegrass and blues at local venues. I just kind of banged around on my Dad's guitar for a while until I got serious in the 6th or 7th grade and began taking classical guitar lessons.

I began to play in a lot of rock bands at parties in high school and college (Appalachian State University), but I also studied jazz and music theory and classical music. Even though I didn't major in music in college, I always took applied music lessons and I played in a jazz ensemble for a few semesters. I actually majored in economics and minored in music.

You've mentioned that you're not the only IT professional at Emory with a musical life outside of work. Is there a connection?

You'll find that at least half the people who work in IT at Emory are artists, actors or musicians of some type. This is just my theory, but I think there's a lot of overlap in the style of thinking and creativity required. The truth is it's hard to get a regular job with good health care benefits in the arts, so a lot of musicians and artists and actors seek that kind of stability in IT jobs. When I go out to jam sessions, I meet a lot of programmers and people in web development and graphic design.

How did you find your way to IT work?

I originally got into it because I liked teaching music. I spent quite a few years after college teaching music privately and playing gigs. I also taught music and economics at a private school in Sandy Springs. I got into IT because I was interested in developing materials to help teach music. I got a job at Emory in the late 1990s, which was a great choice for my family. Before my current job, I spent 10 years doing web development at the School of Medicine. I initially pursued web development with the intention of using that for music education, too. I still teach music a little bit, but now I primarily just perform, guitar mostly.

It sounds as if you have several strong points of connection at Emory.

My 15-year-old daughter, Olivia, has some health issues that have to be managed. So it's very comforting to be at Emory, because this is where her doctors are — an amazing group of people. Today, she's doing extremely well, largely due to the diligence of our family and Professor Rani Sigh, who has done some spectacular work on Glycogen Storage Disease.

In fact, you've used your talents to help with fundraising.

Through performances I've raised money and donated to the National Association for Glycogen Storage Disease children's fund. I have a done a lot of fundraisers for CHOA, too, which is serendipitous. When Olivia was a baby, it wasn't immediately obvious that she had the disease. I had booked a gig to play a fundraiser for CHOA, and by the time it came along she was sick and in the hospital. There's an annual charity event in Atlanta called "500 Songs for Kids," which supports CHOA. I've done that just about every year.

Editor's note: 500 Songs for Kids X includes multiple concerts from March 25 through May 7. Willingham peforms April 30 at Smith's Olde Bar.

What do you get out of performing music?

I enjoy the interaction between the musicians and the audience — it's fun and energizing. It's great to just play music with people, but when you add the element of the audience, it's a whole other thing. If you're just jamming with friends you're missing the third point of the triangle.

IT work can seem isolating. Is musical performance a way to connect?

Since the majority of the work that I do is on Blackboard, the part of the job that I enjoy the most is the teaching, doing workshops and offering training. I enjoy the work; I enjoy the people. It's possible that all the time I've spent playing music makes that easier for me. I don't mind being in front of people. That gives me the sort of interaction that I crave after sitting in front of a computer.