The fourth episode of my new podcast, “Together in the Woodshed,” featuring conversations with great artists about teaching and learning music, is now available! This episode’s guest is Alex Skolnick, named one of the best 100 guitarists of all time by the 2012 Guitar World readers poll. He’s the guitarist for the band Testament, as well as an accomplished jazz musician and composer. He has a new memoir out called “Geek to Guitar Hero,” currently available through his website, Amazon, and independent bookstores. Alex talks about what inspires him to always be learning, how to enjoy the process of working on your music, and how teachers he had, like Joe Satriani, never let him rest on his laurels. He sees his role as a teacher as offering an honest assessment of his students, and speaks about that well.
We had a wonderful – and long! – conversation, and it was great to hear about the kind of music that inspired him during his early years, the kind of expression that draws him to music and performance, and the connections he sees between writing music and writing words.
Here’s a particularly nice part of our chat, from the very end, when we were talking about having the maturity and confidence to seek out honest feedback:
Elizabeth: How do you help a student do that same [iterative composing] process? How do you help students push themselves to do more, and then shape what’s worthy of continuing?
Alex: I’m a believer in balance. I fit my birth sign very well…. Libra. I like to maintain being diplomatic, but truthful. In terms of students, you’re gonna get different reactions depending on who you get feedback from. If you play your idea for your grandmother, for example, Grandma’s probably gonna clap her hands and say ‘It’s wonderful! I’m so proud!’ And if you play it for somebody who’s a fellow musician, that’s in competition with other musicians, they might say ‘It’s terrible! Why would you even come up with that?’ So usually the truth is somewhere in the middle. So you need to get an honest assessment. And I try to be that for my students, because they don’t always get that. And they can’t always tell when somebody’s being honest, or offering praise to make them feel good, or offering criticism to make them feel bad. So it’s really pointing out what’s working and what’s not. It’s hard to be that for yourself, too, I mean that takes a long time. I think that even at this level, where you have albums under your belt, and you have a catalog, I still have people I play my music for…. I want to know if they don’t like it, because it’s somebody I trust.
Elizabeth: How do you develop trust? What are the signs that you feel like you can actually be honest with someone?
Alex: That’s a really good question. I think, honestly, you have to be a little bit judgmental, and you have to say ‘how does this person conduct themselves in other areas of their life?’ How do they talk about others? You have to have a sense of comfort; the person has to exhibit traits that are indicative of honesty. It doesn’t have to be brutal, blunt honesty. Somebody like that might not be good for somebody who’s not ready for that. I think it’s a little bit like trusting anyone. You can make mistakes, too. We all do. And then you learn from the mistakes – ‘oh, I shouldn’t have trusted that person.’
Elizabeth: It sounds like you’re talking about having the sense of self and confidence that you’re working on something you care enough about to actually get real feedback….
Alex: Absolutely, and I think that holds many people back. I’ve seen others who exude confidence – I mean, the music world is full of them, people that just talk the talk and they’re so high and mighty. But deep down inside, they really don’t have any confidence, and they’re deeply insecure. Sometimes that whole posturing is a reaction to being insecure. Whereas, there are others who don’t need to put on an act at all. They’re unassuming, but then they get onstage and do what they do really well. I’ve always related more to those types of people. There’s a maturity that happens when you’re ready for honest feedback, and you’re not just gonna play your demos for your relatives, and your best friend. It’s a big step. And then what do you do with the feedback once you get it? Maybe you’re just not ready to…. whatever it is you’re working on, maybe it’s just not ready to be displayed to the world yet. You need to woodshed some more. And that’s not a bad thing – it’s actually good to know. But you have to be willing to embark upon that process….spending the time, and knowing that it might not work out either.
I would have loved to have put out a jazz record in 1993 or 1994. But I knew I wasn’t ready, and I didn’t know if I would be ready. I only ended up doing it in 2002 because it felt ready. But even if I never did, I was exploring this music, and getting this enrichment by studying music on a deeper level, wherever it led, and I was happy just doing that. I think what often happens is musicians get too focused on one certain goal, whether it’s an album or a gig or whatever, but they really just need to chill out and enjoy the process of working hard. Enjoy the process.
Get the full conversation as a podcast below! And please visit Alex’s website to learn more about all of his music and writing. He’s also on tour with Testament in Europe this summer if you happen to be there.
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