Pat Metheny's compulsive productivity
The jazz guitarist's amazing pre- and post-show routine—plus, a request for your patronage!
Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Starting today, I’m excited to shift this newsletter to a reader-supported model. Which is to say: I’d like to ask those of you who find the newsletter valuable and want to see it continue—and can afford it—to consider becoming paid subscribers for $3/month or $30/year.
The above is a special introductory rate, but subscribe now and you’ll lock it in forever. In addition, I will donate ten percent of the funds I receive in April–May to Direct Relief’s emergency-response efforts in Ukraine.
As a thank-you for your support, you’ll receive an invite to my Subtle Maneuvers server on Discord, where I’ll be sharing behind-the-scenes peeks of my writing process and we can all share progress, resources, and advice (and complaints!). You could think of it as a virtual club, or a salon, or a mutual encouragement and commiseration society. I’m excited to build it into something useful for all involved.
Otherwise, everyone—both free and paid subscribers—will continue to receive a new issue every other Monday, just like before.
OK, on to today’s issue! If you have feedback about paid subscriptions, feel free to leave a comment below or reply to this email. And thanks to everyone who commented on the last couple issues, your ideas were so valuable in crafting this plan, through which I hope to fund this newsletter in the least onerous possible way! 🤞
Pat Metheny (b. 1954)
Last month, I was floored to read in a Believer interview about the jazz guitarist Pat Metheny’s ultra-disciplined approach to making music, which the interviewer Ross Simonini sums up in his introduction:
Metheny has a devotional relationship to music. He dismisses the idea of talent in favor of disciplined work, and is known for practicing the guitar for eight hours a day. He tours nearly constantly, performing over three hundred shows a year. For each one, he spends four hours in preparation: he avoids conversation, runs purposely mindless exercises, and abstains from all food. After the show, he writes ten pages of notes on the performance, critiquing the sound, music, and environment. He has never tasted alcohol or tried any drug, in order to stay focused on music.
Amazing! I highly recommend reading the entire interview1, in which Metheny also describes his daily routine (he’s up between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m every day), shares his thoughts on inspiration, and talks more about that post-performance note-taking habit, which he’s kept up since the mid-1980s.
(I also recommend Simonini’s newsletter, where he conducts terrific artist interviews.)
I was so fascinated that I went looking for more on Metheny’s process and habits. The next best thing I found is a 2021 YouTube interview, in which Metheny again talks about his note-taking habit (ten pages after every show) and why he abstains from food on performance days (because he plays better when he’s hungry!).2 At one point, the interviewer interjects: “Some people would say that’s obsessive, Pat.” Metheny’s response is really interesting:
OK, and I would add to that: The line between what I’m talking about here—in terms of musical output, efficiency, improvement—and the line that goes down to mental illness is a very thin line. I acknowledge that, and everybody that knows me knows that that line is there. Steve Rodby, who is probably my number one teacher . . . he described me one time, which I think is a good way to put it, that I’m “compulsively productive.” And, yes, with maybe a little emphasis on the compulsion side of it. But, on the other hand, in my compulsion is, I think, a reverence toward balance. To me, there is very little in music or in life that I’ve found does not require a really astute awareness of how things are feeling this way [makes a balancing-the-scales gesture].
Previously in this newsletter, I’ve written about the importance of taking a break and even savoring the occasional empty day—but, at the same time, I am fascinated by (and a little jealous of) people like Metheny who seem to have inexhaustible stores of creative energy. And I find it intriguing that, in the above passage, Metheny relates his compulsiveness to a search for balance. Because of course we usually think of compulsive workers as lacking balance, of being all-in on one thing at the expense of everything else. Metheny seems to say, no, it’s by going all-in on one thing that you find balance. And I’m starting to think maybe that’s exactly right? I mean: maybe the reason that “work-life balance” is so notoriously hard to attain is because work and life should never have been separated to begin with?
PAT METHENY ON KENNY G
(The Pat–Kenny beef is also featured in the recent HBO documentary Listening to Kenny G, which I enjoyed!)
THINKING AHEAD (FOR A CHANGE)
When I send out a new issue of this newsletter, it’s rare that I know what I want to write about in the next one. This time, however, I not only know the subject but even have a headline written already:
Do I just need to relax??
Pushing yourself vs. letting things come to you—the eternal dilemma
At the moment I’m planning to draw on material from the five-hour Ryusuke Hamaguchi film Happy Hour, a 1992 letter from the producer Steve Albini to the band Nirvana, and an “inspirational” quote from Bill Murray I saw on Instagram. So… keep an eye out for that!
I’ll also let you all know the results of the paid subscriptions debut, since I know a lot of people are curious about how these things work and I’ve really appreciated other writers’ transparency about their crowdfunding efforts. 🤑
Thanks for reading! This newsletter comes out every other Monday—and you can help keep it coming by becoming a paid subscriber, buying one of my Daily Rituals books, forwarding the newsletter to a friend, or even just clicking the “like” button below.
Reminds me of the similarly compulsive pianist Glenn Gould, who didn’t eat on the days he was recording in the studio; fasting, he said, makes the mind sharper.