By Sean Carpenter, Justin Pansacola
In Part 1 of our conversation with guitar virtuoso Steve Vai, we talked about his personal philosophy and big ideas. In Part 2 below, we continue our talk this time steering more toward the artist’s mindset and the view on his work from this stage of his career.
MXP: You seem very goal focused and driven to conquer new obstacles.
Steve Vai: I may seem goal focused and driven but in reality I only move towards things that are exciting and interesting to me. There’s no discipline involved.
MXP: But there’s a lot of people, especially in this generation, that aren’t even really sure what they want. Do you have any thoughts on how they can create goals and discover their specific desires?
SV: My feeling is that everyone has some kind of talent or gift but sometimes it can go undiscovered or can be thwarted. For some people there can be many obstacles obscuring their natural talent. Those obstacles are all mental. Someone may have an impulse to engage in a gift they have but a little voice in their head may say you’re not good enough to do this, nobody will like this, you don’t have the time or the money, etc. These feelings are all based in insecurity or fear.
The advice I might give to a young person that may feel confused in finding a vocation in life might be, first, try not to take everything so seriously. You need to get in touch with yourself; your inner self, and then there may be some answers. Try to understand that you may be being brain washed by the world.
In order to find our center we need to quiet the mind noise. One of the best ways is meditation. Unfortunately, that word is shrouded in preconceived ideas pertaining to religion, spirituality, cult, etc. But meditation is just the process of slowing down and stilling the mind noise which is vitally necessary for our sanity and health.
There are many methods of meditation and I would recommend contacting a qualified master for any kind of deep meditation, (I’m not qualified). Having said that a very simple mediation practice is to just sit and do two things, relax and breath. Only think about doing those two things. Focus on truly relaxing every part of your body with every breath. There’s no end to how deep you can relax. Keep your attention in the moment and on your breath and relaxing.
This only need take a few moments or can be practiced for longer periods.
Once you have tried this practice and your thoughts are at ease, ask yourself, without any pressure or expectations: what is it that you do in your life that never causes anxiety or fear, but makes you feel excited even just thinking about doing it. Perhaps it’s your own little secret, or something you’ve never done before. Try to just let the answers arise without even trying to think so hard about it.
Chances are that in these calm moments an inkling of an idea of what that thing is will come to you. You may also notice that the mind may quickly rebound and start criticizing. It’s important to not be reactive but just recognize that it’s a conditioned mind pattern; just bring the attention back into the body by breathing and relaxing.
The trick is to go in and out. What can happen is your realization of the thing you would enjoy doing will become clearer and every time you shut down the negative thought patterns as they will loose the stronghold they’ve had on you for so many years.
I don’t mean it to sound as if a person has to be doing or achieving anything in order to find happiness or success. For some people just being is plenty enough life purpose for them. Another way to look at it is, it doesn’t matter what you choose to do, what matters is how you align yourself with your choices.
MXP: You seem like you have an artist’s competitiveness as opposed to, say, a sportsman’s competitiveness: your competition is with yourself and having each performance better than the last. With such a long and storied career, does that competitiveness change?
My perspective on competition has changed through the years. When I was very young I never felt competitiveness with another musician, only myself. I couldn’t understand competing with someone else musically. I always felt that everyone was a better guitar player than me and with that perspective I felt surrounded with people that inspired me.
In the mid 80’s to early 90’s when I started to become famous as a rock guitar player, on the cover of all the music and guitar magazines, winning all the guitar polls world wide, being told I was the best etc. I started to believe it all. All of a sudden success was gauged by where you fell in a poll or how many records you sold. When you create an identity for yourself based on things that change then you will inevitably suffer. It was good for me to go through that.
These days, and for the last 15-20 or so years, I don’t have such strong feelings of competition with others — I mean, it’s nice to stack up in regards to popular choice but I really don’t pay as much attention to that stuff as I used to. But I do still compete with myself and even through those very ego-centric years I still had a fierce sense of self-completion. It’s more of a desire to expand and evolve my own unique creative vision deeper than before.
All of a sudden success was gauged by where you fell in a poll or how many records you sold. When you create an identity for yourself based on things that change then you will inevitably suffer.
MXP: Let’s talk about that approach to art today. Can you knowing that you’ve reached the heights that you have? What do you strive for?
SV: In regards to my career the heights I reach are always mental ones and they are usually when I am imagining something creative that is really exciting to me. The coasting is there when I’m not thinking of these things.
I’m fortunate in that I enjoy doing many things in life, be it working, relaxing, etc. If the only reason I worked was to reach heights of fame then my work would probably get boring to me and I would be uninspired.
MXP: I’m sure there’s a lot of young musicians that want to work toward that. What advice do you give to artists that are attempting to find their voice and apply it to their art? How do they know when they’ve found it?
SV: Be critical with yourself but only in constructive ways. Dig deeper into expressing that side of you that seems to be a secret passion, or a unique vision. Be patient and enjoy every moment of the process. LIFE does not exist in the goal. It exists in every moment on the way to it.
Don’t be swayed by criticism good or bad because criticism is really only someone else’s mind constructs.
Know that you are absolutely capable of creating something unique. That should be obvious because even in the external world everyone looks different. No two are the same.
You will know you found It when you are marveling at your own work and can’t even truly comprehend or explain how it all came to you.
MXP: I’ve heard you talk about guitar playing as telling a story. What goes into speaking through that? What do you tap into to try and get your messages across?
SV: You can never really guess what will resonate with some people and not others. It’s really up to what the listener is interested in and tuned into in order for them to understand the language and the story you are telling so to speak.
I just try to be very present with each note and give it my attention. There is this illusive frame of mind that exists where my attention is in the inspiration that is arising and then my fingers play it. It’s sort of a tiny time shift dimension of sorts but it’s happening at the same time.
MXP: Do you think artists need periodic validation & recognition to continue making their art? If determination and mindset is the key, there’s a line of thinking that says these needs are a distraction and all you need is to toil in hard work.
I think it’s different for different artists. Some don’t need validation and are content with just fulfilling their creative impulses. And then there are some that will not continue creating unless they are receiving validation. And then there’s everything in between.
It’s across the board and the level of unique and powerful inspiration that an artist may have access to can also be varied and influenced by their desire, or lack of desire, for validation.
I am grateful whenever my contributions are being recognized but more so I’m compelled by an exciting idea.