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Tips from award-winning guitarist and composer for aspiring musicians

Alex Goodman: "It's the 'failures' that have helped make me who I am much more than the successes"

Alex Goodman (seen here in Montreux) used to wake up at six a.m. to practise before attending classes at the University of Toronto (photo by Damien Richard/Montreux Jazz Festival)

Now based in New York City, University of Toronto alumnus and award-winning guitarist and composer Alex Goodman is visiting Toronto this week, playing a number of shows including four nights at the Rex Jazz Club.

He spoke with writer Tyler Greenleaf about what it was like last month to become the first Canadian ever to take first prize at the Montreux International Jazz Competition. (Read the interview.) And he also took time out to share his reflections and advice on creating and managing a career in music with the University’s Faculty of Music students.

Work ethic is likely more important than talent

For a long time I didn't believe in the concept of talent. As time goes on, it's become clear to me that many musicians possess an extraordinary level of talent, but I've never really felt like I had much of it. I’ve tried to work for everything and figure out how I could get to where I wanted to go in music. I do think that I've come to grips with my strengths and weaknesses but music hasn't necessarily come that easily to me.

Through tenacity and hard work, you can really get to where you want to go.

Capitalize on your setbacks

I think it's important to not let setbacks and “failures” deter you from continuing on the path to becoming a musician. I feel like I'm a bit of a late bloomer in music because I started relatively late. I only started getting into jazz in the year before university and lacked the work ethic to get my skills together. I was terrible and couldn't even get into a music program when I was applying for schools. I enrolled in the arts program at McGill and started taking every jazz course I could on top of my arts course load to try and improve. I eventually did get in to both the McGill and University of Toronto jazz programs, but it took me three auditions before it actually happened.

I ended up choosing U of T in 2007 and started really focusing on music at that time. It was really hard and discouraging in the time leading up to this, but in retrospect things weren't happening because I wasn't ready for them. Going through that process of rejection and working through it was likely the most important thing I ever did. It would have been so easy to quit, but dealing with rejection and learning that it was my responsibility to improve ended up being the best lesson I ever learned.

Four years after finally getting into a music program I recorded my CD that was nominated for a Juno. If I had quit or blamed someone else for my setbacks, I never would have got there. Looking back, it's the “failures” that have helped make me who I am much more than the successes.

Have an open mind in music

I would like to stress how important I think it is to have an open mind in music. I had an amazing time in the University of Toronto Jazz Program and also tried to seek out classes in other departments. U of T is such an amazing place and we are so lucky to have amazing teachers working there. I learned some of the most about music studying counterpoint with Sasha Rapoport and composition with Gary Kulesha and Norbert Palej. I was also fortunate that the school was open-minded enough to help me start up a cross-departmental ensemble using musicians from the jazz and classical departments. My composition studies really shaped me as a musician and ended up being pivotal in developing my own voice. I've learned so much from amazing faculty members like David Occhipinti and Andrew Downing, who have such a beautiful, curious and accepting approach to music.

Try not to get so caught up in your style that you write off other types of music. Since moving to New York, I've had the opportunity to play with some great orchestras and music theatre ensembles; at one time I might have shrugged off opportunities like this, but I've learned so much about timing, ensemble playing, texture, sound production, composition and orchestration in the process. Both jazz and classical music have so much to teach one another about rhythm, interaction, harmony and time feel. Every genre today has something to show us and it's up to us to figure it out. It's a great challenge and a great opportunity to continue growing in music in new ways. Keep an open mind about music and see how the fundamentals of rhythm, harmony and melody apply in different musical situations. Seek out different musical experiences and make friends with musicians from different backgrounds. Keep a positive, curious and constantly inquiring mindset and you'll learn amazing things.

It takes time, persistence and hard work

I think I could track all recognition I've received back to my first FACTOR demo grant, which I received as a U of T student. This gave me a solid first product that I then used to solicit larger grants and awards. I slowly worked on my music, and over the course of many years developing my sound, eventually came closer to what I really wanted to do. It takes time, but through constant hard work, tenacity and persistence, one can build a career and life in music. It's important for me to share my music with an audience so I'm grateful for every recognition I've received and the opportunities they have provided me with.

Upon starting the music program at U of T, I was tired of being so far behind everyone and started to work really hard. I would wake up at six a.m. to practise before school started and made sure I practised intense regular hours every day. I just really wanted to get better and have something to offer in music. I worked really hard and have tried to keep up that work ethic as much as I can. Since I've never felt particularly talented, I felt that the only way I would get anywhere is if I worked harder. The funny thing is that even with all that work, I still think it took me a long time to start internalizing music. I saw many other people progressing in music more quickly than I was, and I tried to use this as a motivator for myself. It actually took a long time for me to feel in command of musical concepts, and I only feel like things have really started to come together very recently (in the last year or so).

Music isn't a sprint, it's a marathon and I think that this long dedicated approach is pretty powerful. It's been important for me to stick through any hard spots and keep my focus strong.

Work on the fundamentals 

I think it's imperative to always develop your command of the fundamentals in music. Don't take any shortcuts; real growth in music takes slow, methodical and patient practice. Don't overlook the basics to work on flashy stuff, nothing sits right without a solid command of the fundamentals. I think it's important to keep an open mind but to also have a really strong foundation in the music you specialize in. Develop a proficiency in the various sub genres of your specialized music; it's amazing how it informs your primary musical voice and teaches you new things. Learn and immerse yourself in the tradition of your music and increase your understanding of how styles relate to each other.

The music comes first

It's important to never feel like you are entitled to anything and also not to let any recognition you get go to your head. I've been lucky to receive a lot of support, but it has been important for me to see it as simple encouragement of my musical growth. I know where I want to get to and the only way to do it is to continue working as hard as I can to improve my music. Winning Montreux was a huge honour but there were a lot of guitarists there who could have and maybe even should have won the competition. I feel really proud to be recognized internationally but it still doesn't reflect where I want to be in music and how much work I still have ahead of me to get there. I came back to New York and was immediately reminded by all the amazing players here how much further I still have to go.

I think that recognizing music is a lifelong pursuit, staying humble and constantly working to better yourself is vital. The really powerful motivator in music is feeling like you need to express yourself and feeling confident that you have something to express. If you are motivated by that and have a need to reach an increasingly deeper understanding of music, I don't think anything can stop you. Success can be encouraging, but it’s important to keep your mind on music and how you can be the best musician you can possibly be.

(Read more about Goodman or find him on Twitter @agoodmanjazz.)