Guitarist Pat Metheny left this rhetorical question hanging in the air early on during his convocation address on May 29, moments after receiving his Honorary Doctorate in Music. While addressed half-jokingly at the graduating class, the statement likely rang true for the platform party, audience, and even Metheny himself.
No one should have experienced an existential crisis for more than a brief moment, though. While pointing out that a life in music brings up this question at every turn, Metheny went on to explain that musicians are well-equipped to face this challenge by nature.
“Regardless of what aspect of music we as individuals are focused on, the ability to listen deeply and respond persuasively to each and every detail of what is going on inside the music we love and are involved with has the interesting side benefit of preparing us for things and conditions that may lie ahead,” Metheny explained. “As we consider the intermediate future, maybe we are looking ahead what piece to address next or what new techniques we hope to master, and in the short term we are simply looking ahead far enough to be appropriately in or out of tune with the person sitting next to us over the next 4 bars or so. But in any case, being able to adjust on the fly to the infinite variables of any specific performance requires a level of sensitivity and resourcefulness that as musicians we almost take for granted; but in fact these qualities offer an endless reserve of benefits in a broader life sense – if only we can tap into them.”
Metheny also expounded further benefits of studying music, including learning the empowering lesson that you have the ability to master new things. “There is nothing like the feeling where you start with nothing, have a musical idea or concept, and through sweat and hard work, and hopefully a bit of inspiration, you finally end up with a satisfying musical result. And what comes along with that is the realization that you have the capacity to do something that you didn't know you could do. […] Knowing and understanding that process can apply to everything in life. Living ones life in a musical way—no matter how it shows up—can be an excellent template and guide for how to solve all kinds of problems – and how to have a great life.”
A look at Metheny’s career itself could serve as inspiration on how to live by this advice, and reveals many likely “now what” moments that he capitalized on. Already a gigging musician by the age of 15 in Kansas City, he rose to international fame by the time he was 20 years old playing with vibraphonist Gary Burton. His debut recording Bright Size Life (1975) was a hit, and was followed by an almost yearly output of now-iconic albums, including 80/81 (1980), Offramp (1982), First Circle (1984), Song X (1986), Still Life (Talking) (1987), Secret Story (1992), Beyond the Missouri Sky (Short Stories) (1997), Metheny/Mehldau (2006), Orchestrion (2010), and KIN (←→) (2014).
With many of these releases, Metheny reimagined his approach and broke new musical ground, including the use of a guitar synthesizer on Offramp, an incredible collaboration with saxophonist Ornette Coleman in Song X¸ and a performance with an automated ensemble in Orchestrion. The huge musical spectrum that these projects cover is reflected in one of Metheny’s most unique achievements – he’s the only musical artist to ever win Grammy Awards in 12 separate categories.
Metheny also has been involved in music education for a good deal of his career, beginning as the youngest teacher ever at the University of Miami and the Berklee College of Music at the ages of 18 and 19, respectively. He continues to share his knowledge through workshops around the world.
On a local level, Montreal’s love for Metheny showed during the ceremony through the audience’s enthusiastic applause and cheers of support. The guitarist is no stranger to the city, having performed at almost every iteration of the Festival international de Jazz de Montreal since its inception, in addition to stops on tour at other times of the year. The last time many attendees saw Pat Methey onstage, he was likely sporting a patent striped shirt and hollow body guitar instead of academic dress and a diploma—as such, Spring Convocation was a unique opportunity to celebrate the legendary artist and welcome him as a McGill graduate.