Steve Vai Discusses the Struggle to Balance Precision and Passion in 1991 Guitar World Interview
What should a teacher try to accomplish?
I think the thing a teacher should aim for -- and I can only speak as a student -- is to get their students to explore their own individuality. The best teachers always relate to their students as human beings; the worst ones look at teaching as just a job. I personally believe that teachers are the most important factor in the evolution of the human race.
I have here two Zen parables relating to teaching and leadership. I'd like to get your comments on them. The first one is: "There are many individuals who are liberated, or who appear to be so. Some of them seek disciples because they have not heeded Nietzsche, who said, 'What? You seek followers? You would multiply yourself by 10, by 100, by 1,000? Seek zeroes! Remember this and know that any system of liberation may work once, for one individual."'
I would agree with this. I think there is probably something a little unbalanced about a man seeking followers. I believe the best thing a human being can do is just set a good example.
You've had some great teachers. What was Frank Zappa like?
Frank always taught through example. He's one of the most honest people I've ever met. If he tried to lie, his tongue would probably snap out of his mouth. That made a big impression on me.
What was Joe Satriani like as a teacher?
Joe was by far my most thorough teacher. He knew what it meant to teach. He taught all the fundamentals, but he also set a great example. For instance , he would never tell me to practice and not practice himself. He would never tell me to memorize something that he didn't have memorized. He was, by far, my biggest influence.
Now for the second Zen parable: "An older student came to a respected Zen scholar and said, 'I have been to see a great number of teachers and I have given up a great number of pleasures. I have fasted, been celibate and stayed awake nights seeking enlightenment. I have given up everything I was asked to give up and I have suffered, but I have not been enlightened. What should I do?' "The scholar replied, 'Give up suffering.'"
I think there are certain things an individual can learn by following, but ultimately you’re going to have to follow your own path or suffer. It's important to find your own personal methodology.
One of the things I thought was interesting about the parable was the student's attitude toward discipline. Relating it back to the guitar, some see the discipline of practicing the guitar for six hours to be torture, while others actually enjoy the process because they love the guitar. Some people see all forms of discipline as "suffering," while others find it liberating.
Suffering is only in the mind of the sufferer. For me, practicing is a labor of love. It reflects a desire to become more proficient. Human beings have this inbred need to reach for better and for more. It's in every single living thing -- it's part of nature. It's why we procreate. That's why we do what we do.
I have to look back at some of the things I've said in the press, and apologize for some of my seemingly more self-righteous attitudes. When I've said I practiced for 10 or 15 hours a day, it was only because I was asked. I didn't mean to wear it as a badge. Believe me, it wasn't suffering. Maybe some part of me wants to show off, but I hope that 's not true because I find that grotesque.
I really enjoy practicing. I enjoy fasting. It has to do with trying to experience different aspects of life. If I go on a ten-day fast , it's not because I want a reward. I'm doing it for what it is and to experience it. I don't do it because I think other people should do it. I enjoy doing these things. I enjoy the pain -- not in a masochistic way -- but I know that I'm striving for something, and in order to reach certain goals you have to put out. And it hurts sometimes. It takes courage to try to achieve your goals.
Recently, in the middle of a December night, I ran through a foot of snow in my underwear and jumped into Lake Tahoe. I met some people who were active members of the Polar Bear Club, and they were absolutely fascinating. I talked to this guy who was 77 who looked like he was 50. He claimed he could outrun me and that he swims in freezing water at least three times a week from December through March. I decided I just had to try it.
I also went Bungee jumping [the practice of hurling oneself from a 100-foor high platform with an oversized rubber band tied to one's feet.] the other day. That was really wild. Deep down inside, everybody has a little voice that is always asking, "What if?" What if I turn into oncoming traffic? What if I jump off the top of this building? Bungee jumping is the closest thing to satisfying that craving. It's really a rush. I treasure the moment I had on the ledge just before I jumped. After I decided I was going to jump, I just heaved myself off.
But it had to be difficult at times to be so dedicated to the guitar.
I often forced myself to play something, and I'd get really mad at myself if I tried to walk away from it. I'd call myself a wimp. I don't know where that mentality comes from, but that's what I did. Playing guitar was a very serious endeavor, and I didn't practice with the idea of being famous. In fact , that was one of the furthest things from my mind. It just seemed so impossible.
At one point, I was even very afraid of being famous. lt was a major source of anxiety. That sounds weird. It thought it would be a very scary lifestyle, fraught with overwhelming responsibility.
Does it surprise you when people try to emulate you?
I never thought someone could possibly want to emulate me. That concept is totally beyond me. And I'm sure a lot of people don't want to emulate me. Some people are just interested in me because I look like some sort of weird creature.