This story was originally posted at reddit.com
In 2010 I won a contest where Steve Vai picked 10 guitarists to fly out to LA for a private master class. Steve Vai has been one of my greatest musical influences and needless to say, I was ecstatic about the opportunity. The experience was really fascinating and inspiring, so I thought I’d share it with you and try my best to relay what Steve was telling us.
I flew from Boston to LAX where a transportation service picked up all the contest winners, and took us to our hotel. Upon entering the hotel lobby, the first thing I saw was a large tank behind the front desk with a mannequin in it. Upon further inspection I realized the mannequin was actually a real human and a living human nonetheless. To my right, there was a display of a woman in a dress and high heels tearing down drywall. It was a Tuesday night yet the hotel was bustling with people dressed in the finest/sluttiest attire, and I felt like I was in an episode of Entourage. My hotel room featured a bright orange bathroom and a thermostat that simply read “blow; hard, harder, stop.” I headed back downstairs and sat down in the hotel’s swanky restaurant to have dinner with the other contest winners. There was a door in the back of the restaurant that led to a mysterious room lit only by strobe lights. As we ate our dinners, people would stumble in and out of the strobe room adjusting bra straps and skirts. It was surreal to be in such a crazy place under equally crazy circumstances. I felt at home however, when I got to know the other guitarists. These guys were so nice and supportive and it reminded me of hanging out at Berklee.
The next morning, we didn’t have anything scheduled until the clinic at night, and I didn’t want to sit around in the hotel room feeling nervous about meeting Steve, so I took the opportunity to meet up with one of my mentors and dear friends Josh Brill. Josh taught me at the Berklee summer programs when I was in high school and has really helped me develop as a musician and as a person. Josh has an incredible gift for getting people to see things from a positive perspective, and talking to him all morning really helped settle my nerves. Naturally, I really hoped Steve Vai would like me and I had prepared a press kit to share my music with him. I was fairly anxious about meeting him because I didn’t want to miss my chance to become friends with my idol. Josh helped me see that whether Vai and I became pals or not, I had already won by being invited there in the first place and that I should savor the moment for what happens rather than what could happen. He helped me realize that if I enter the clinic from a positive position of gratitude rather than expectation, I would enjoy the clinic more and have a more meaningful experience. I decided that I would focus on what Steve already gave me by flying me up to meet him, rather than on what could happen. I still planned on giving Steve my music, but I refused to invest myself in how he would receive it. Although my mind still wandered away from that idea every now and then, I was definitely on a good course.
That night at the clinic the other guitarists and I sat in the show room of a huge Guitar Center and eagerly awaited Steve’s arrival. Each contest winner received a free guitar and wah-pedal, and after taking a moment to tune up we all began WANKING FURIOUSLY on our new instruments! After all, we were in a guitar store. When Steve Vai entered the room I got that “oh shit, there he is!” kind of feeling. He walked on the stage, looked around at everyone, turned to me and said, “Hey, I’ve met you before!” In a roar of excitement I replied “Yeah four times!” (Which is true.) He said, “Man you could be my brother-in-law or something,” and like an idiot I replied, “Well, actually I am your brother’s brother-in-law.” Then it got quiet for a second.
Steve immediately opened the floor for questions and not too many people were raising their hands. Since I had A LOT of questions, I ended up asking a ton of them and I got some incredibly inspiring information out of him! He also asked us what our goals were and offered personal advice.
Here are my two most important questions and Steve’s answers as I understood them:
Q: I write more material than I can afford to record. My goal is to be able to record my music whenever I want, in the most pristine quality, and have my albums fund the production, promotion, and tours of my next albums. Do you have any advice for me?
A: Steve said that there is absolutely no reason why I can’t do that, and that the first important thing to do is to visualize myself achieving my goal. When I get a clear mental image of how success would look, feel, and sound, I can properly take the steps to reach my idea of success.
Secondly, to achieve my goals, I have to look at the journey to my idea of success as a path with little steps. Navigating through each step or idea I have requires a lot of creative thought of course, but ultimately, successfully climbing one of the steps requires me to find joy in the process of climbing in the first place. In other words, the way to move closer to achieving my goals, is to focus on the things that I love about the process. Steve said that you can only truly succeed at something that you love doing. To me that means if you have to get a day job, you should view your job as something that further enables your passion. Your job is something that enables you to move forward on your journey. Having this positive perspective allows you to maintain focus on everything you love about the process, so that you will be better at it. Clearly people do a better job when they love what they’re doing. Also, each time you take one of those little steps forward, you feel really great and accomplished, which encourages you to do even more!
Finally, you must never question whether or not your goal can be achieved because that sucks the pleasure out of everything and leads to failure. Vai said, “If you think you’ll fail, you’ll fail. If you think you’ll succeed, you’ll succeed. No matter what, you’re right.”
Basically, success comes from love of the process, having a strong idea of what the process is, and NEVER allowing yourself to doubt whether or not the goal can be achieved. The love has a spiraling effect to it, where the more you love about what you do, the more you love what you do.
Q: I am about to graduate from Berklee, and I am making the sudden jump from the academic bubble to the professional universe. You made that switch very abruptly jumping from Berklee to Zappa’s band. Can you tell me about that transition and what it was like?
A: There is nothing you can do to prepare for it. It is chaos. However, if you focus on your goals (through the process described earlier,) you will find your way in the business. You need to truly believe in yourself. If you doubt yourself, you become that doubt. The game is 99% mental.
I had a very positive attitude going into the clinic thanks to my morning with Josh, the other guitarists were extremely cool, and Steve Vai was so inspirational. I feel like I was really able to soak it in. So, when it came time to give Steve my press kit. I simply told him what it was, and that if he wants to check out the music it’s there for him. I let him have my work that I poured my heart into, but didn’t pressure him to keep it. I didn’t have to, because I know that no matter what happens, I will succeed.
Here is a link to my contest winning video, for those who are curious: