On 12 May 1996 Pat Matheny (American jazz guitarist and composer) spoke to the graduating class at Berklee College of Music. His words spoke power – especially for all those who teach. In the speech, Pat talks about how in our culture, there are lots of reasons why people become musicians — and how things are massively changing. What doesn’t change is tradition – and as bagpipers and drummers we are guardians of the tunes of glory (but we need to practice and make progress). Thank you to band member Dalton Marshall for sharing this speech with us…really solid stuff. Music can solve life problems if you let it hit you in the face.
Well, first of all, I would like to sincerely thank everyone here at Berklee for bestowing this great honor on me. It is probably the most meaningful recognition I have ever received, and I am really proud and flattered to be standing in front of you here today.
When I think back at the time that I was here at Berklee, it is always with fond memories and good feelings that make it even more special for me. Well, I have never had to give a speech before. I guess like most of you, pretty much all of my waking hours, since I was twelve or thirteen years old, have been consumed with the nuts and bolts of trying to learn about music. That vast, endless and infinite task; a subject, that for me, that has proven to be absolutely, a full-time job.
Any speeches that I have ever had to make in the past, have generally been focused on whether or not it really is a good idea to try to work that B natural into that G minor seven chord. But, I am gonna try and do my best today.
My connection to the Berklee school, goes back to January of 1974, when I was 19 years old. I was asked to take a position on the guitar faculty by Gary Burton, who had seen me teaching and playing at various jazz festivals and band camps around the country. And even though I was really just a kid, he seemed to feel that I had something to offer the school, and recommended me to the provost at that time, Bob Share, who was truly a great person. He gave me a job and I moved here to Boston.
Having grown up in the small town of Lee’s Summit, Missouri, at the time I moved to Boston, I had never really lived on the East Coast, in an urban environment. And although I had quite a bit of playing experience by that time, in Kansas City and later Miami, I had certainly never seen so many good players all in one place—like here in Boston.
The level of musicianship of the students and the teachers around Berklee then, like now, was quite inspiring and really amazing for me, coming from this little town in Missouri like I did. I think the first few years I was in Boston was probably the time that I developed, and crystallized whatever style I had. That was largely due to the incredible, stimulating musical environment that was Boston, at that time.
Honestly though, looking back on it now, I was far from a great teacher. I guess, to my credit, I realized this very quickly. I had no delusions about it, and I actually didn’t teach very long, just a couple of semesters. And that is because, at the time, I was totally involved with trying to figure out a way of doing things with my instrument musically, that would fit the ideas that I had in my head. And I was deep in that zone of practicing almost constantly.
When I was actually teaching, most of my lessons consisted of me relating whatever thing it was that I happened to be working on, myself, right then, to the guy whoever happened to get assigned to me. And whatever I figured out by that time, I tried to show to everyone else. In retrospect, that is probably not the best way to go about being a teacher, but I was trying as hard as I could to do the best that could.
Since I’ve been given the honor today, and the responsibility that comes with it, I should try and use this opportunity to relate to y’all, some of the things that I’ve noticed to be true since my days here at Berklee. So to keep my own little Berklee tradition going here, I am going to do it sort of like I used to do my lessons. It is going to be like, “O.K. you guys, this is what I figured out so far.”
So, for what it’s worth, here’s a couple things. When I do look back on the past twenty years or so, the main thing I have to acknowledge is, just how unbelievably lucky I personally have been, to see so many of my musical dreams come true like they have. I have had the opportunity to play with many of the greatest musicians on Earth. I’ve gotten some nice awards, and recognition from my peers, even the general public. And mainly, in the cultural context that we live in, maybe most surprisingly, I have been able to survive and have as life playing creative music at a high level.
Any one of these things would have been beyond my wildest dreams, when I was a little kid in Missouri, thinking about one day becoming a musician. The fact that they have all come true, leaves me waking up every morning, feeling just unbelievably fortunate and thankful.
But in the process of putting this speech together, it has forced me to really examine a few details about what has been particularly significant for me, as an individual, in this life that I have been having as a musician. And the results of this self-examination process getting ready for this speech, were interesting to me. Because for as much as I can stand here and claim to be a successful player, with Grammy awards and winning polls and now honorary degrees and all that stuff; one very fundamental thing has not changed, and I realized that it will never change, and that is this—that the main thing in my life, even as I stand here right now, right this second, is that I really need to go home and practice.
Saying this, of course, is obvious. We all need to practice and improve, and we will all need to practice and improve. But I do think that when I was younger, there would be a day when I would sort of “get it”, and that everything would be cool, and I would have arrived at that promised land of being a great musician and I would just be. And I can see now, that that is never going to happen.
The thing for me, and the good news, is I realize that for whatever benefits I’ve gotten from being a musician in a material sense, or in the form of recognition, the fundamental reward that I still get the most satisfaction from, is the process of what being a musician is. It is that need and desire to want to go home and practice that’s the coolest thing. The part where you start with nothing, have a musical idea or vision or aspiration, and through discipline and organization and preparation, and especially inspiration, you finally end up with the capacity to do something that you didn’t know you could do.
This process is an essential part of all music making activities, that we as musicians probably take for granted. But it is a skill that throughout our lives as players, we have an opportunity to learn about and refine to a very high degree. Knowing about that process, can apply to everything in life. And it is for that reason, that many of the greatest people that I’ve known have been, essentially, musicians. Whether professional or not, they have lived their lives in a way that this musical process was a guiding part in how they went about solving their problems and living their lives.
I realize that of all the cool things that have happened to me, the best one is that I know I can play a whole lot better now, than I could twenty years ago. I wouldn’t trade any of the outside benefits of what my career has offered me with that. That sense of personal, and especially musical growth.
This would bring me to what I guess would be my central message to y’all on this very significant day in your lives as musicians. And that is this very simply, that despite whatever kinds of traditional successes or failures that may or may not happen to you throughout your lives as musicians, the best rewards that you will receive are embedded in the actual music itself that you will make. That is, you may or may not have success by the standards that society in general uses to quantify things like that, but the real, genuine true success that transcends the day to day stuff is going to be that fact that you know about music. And that you are intimately familiar with not only music itself, but the process of making it.
In this culture, there are lots of reasons why people become musicians. The role of music in any society is fascinating, this period more than usual. But the role of musicians in this society is really changing. Due to technology, due to mass communications, and mainly because things just naturally change and we happen to be in a period where they are massively changing.
Many times I run into young guys, who want to get a record contract, or a manager, or how to get their music on the radio, and my answer is always the same. And I think that regardless of how much things keep changing or mutating through the years, it will always be the same. And I say this—don’t worry about those things too much. Just go home, try to understand as much as you can about why you wanted to be a musician in the first place, and exactly what it is about music that knocks you out, and practice like crazy on that. And if you can do it about fourteen hours a day, that will help too.
I’ll try not to say this in a glib or off-hand way, it is just that I found that even as things change, as record companies come and go, as styles change, as trends and audiences change, the work of being a musician and being involved with the fabric of music itself is essentially the same and essentially real. While most of these external things, in addition to being largely out of one’s control, are also largely an illusion. Especially compared to what you have to know in order to become a good musician in the first place. And especially compared to what you get out of the process of becoming a good musician.
For me personally, after everything, the only thing that remains really true is the feeling that the end of the day, I know that I really played good or I didn’t. Or that I made some progress and I understand something that I didn’t understand at the beginning of the day, or I don’t. This to me, is the real currency of what it is to have a life a musician. This accumulated wisdom and insight into the reality of music, and as much of a stretch as it might be sometimes, therefore into life and living. And, in response to that guy who is looking for a manager or a record company, whether he knows it or not, it’s that currency of musical wisdom and understanding that will eventually lead him or her to all the things that he or she needs to fulfill the journey that they started, the day they made that important decision to dedicate their lives to music in the first place. Not the quick fix kind of goal of making a record or two or getting a couple of nice gigs.
Of course, it is easy for me to stand here and say all this. I have been really lucky, I’ve gotten the gigs and the record contracts and all that stuff. But there is one other larger truth that I’ve seen in evidence over this time, and it goes like this and my best wish would be that I might even be an example. Really good, seriously good, musical work has a way of finding its way out to the people. I can that I’ve rarely, if ever after all these years, run across someone who has something that they’ve developed that’s truly valuable to offer as a musician, who doesn’t finally end up with opportunities to turn those ideas into some kind of career. It may take awhile, certainly some stylistic paths offer really different kinds of resistance than others. But usually, the chances show up, if what the musician has to offer is really strong, really sincere and is honestly representative of who they are as musicians and as people, regardless of the stylistic zone.
But finally, and ultimately, music remains an intensely personal issue. Maybe the most important commitment you can make is to the music fan that lives inside of you, to find out just what it is about music that knocks you out. In that discovery, you’ll find most of what you need to know to take you wherever you need to go.
All of you here have roads ahead of you that will be filled with good musical days, the ones where you feel you can play or hear anything, and bad musical days, the ones where everything you do sounds like a bad Madonna tune. But that variety, that sense of unknowing, that feeling of having to make it up yourself, that sense of adventure, that is what music is. And that is a big part of why having a life as a musician is so much fun.
And fun is a good word to end on. Because the last thing, and maybe the most important thing, that I’ve noticed over the years of playing with people from all kinds of stylistic zones and all different types of music, and in fact the only thing that they all seem to have in common, from Sonny Rollins to Steve Reich, from David Bowie to Milton Nascimiento, from Herbie Hancock to Gary Burton, is just how much fun they all have doing what they do, when they are doing it at their best. For all the satisfaction and work and practice and dues that it takes to become a good musician, in the end, and I’m sure you all will agree with this, it’s a blast to be a musician.
Congratulations you guys. Go out there, take all those two-five-ones out into the world, hopefully mess with them a little bit along the way and do that. Play good and have fun. Thank you.
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