Jon Finn is a lucky guy. Well, that is according to him. However, when you dig deeper, it isn’t just luck that has kept him on the guitar faculty at Berklee College of Music since 1988, or has gotten him consistent gigs with the Boston Pops, or has brought him critical acclaim for his playing on a myriad of projects.
The Roman philosopher Seneca said “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” I suspect in Jon’s case there is a good dose of preparation that has conspired with a passion for music that has led to him being so “lucky.”
I asked Jon to shed some insight on his path as a professional guitarist, and his role as an educator.
JS: Do you remember your first teaching experience? What was it that made you want to teach?
JF: Ha! I never meant to get in to teaching. I kind of fell in to it, and realized I had a knack for it. My first teaching experience was taking over an after-school guitar lessons program in Braintree, MA. My girlfriend at the time had the gig, but had to give it up due to another job offer. She urged me to take over the practice she’d built, so I did.
JS: Did you find that teaching impacted your own playing in any way?
JF: There’s no question! Teaching transformed how I approach the instrument. Because everyone thinks a little bit differently, you cannot assume that the way you understand something will inspire or instruct someone else. If it does, great, but if not, it becomes necessary to re-think how you present different things. There’s a saying that goes, “the teacher often learns twice as much as the student.” In my case it’s probably true.
JS: In your years of teaching, is there any one thing that stands out as a recurring problem for students?
JF: I will say that one of the most common challenges is motivating the student to really learn the instrument inside and out. It’s hard, thankless work that takes years before it pays off. I didn’t make “real” progress until I became willing to work on and practice the things I stink at: scales, chord voicings, arpeggios, key signatures, voice leading, note identification, sight-reading, music theory all that stuff that’s hard to work on.
JS: It can be difficult to teach and develop a playing career at the same time. Any tips for players aspiring to pursue both?
JF: One of the things I think about is how lucky I’ve been to be able to do this and call it a living. I don’t really have a secret. I approach my career in a deliberately diversified manner; there are always several projects going on at once. Between September and May, I’m teaching at Berklee for three days a week, and teaching private lessons at home occasionally. I do a lot of freelancing as a sideman for others. I try to get a few things published every year, either online or in print. I’ve completed two courses for TrueFire, with others in preparation stages. I never expected to earn a living off of my own music simply because the nature of the music I write tends not to appeal to the masses.
Because everyone thinks a little bit differently, you cannot assume that the way you understand something will inspire or instruct someone else. If it does, great, but if not, it becomes necessary to re-think how you present different things.
JS: What kind of mindset change is there between playing your own band gigs and doing a gig like the Boston Pops?
JF: When playing any kind of gig when you’re not the leader, it’s important to remember that your job is to make the music sound good, and help others bring their musical vision to light. The biggest mindset change is being ok with the idea that you might not like or agree with everything you’re asked to play. Playing in an orchestra setting requires that you’re able to play your part in a manner where the only time anyone notices you is when you play. You’re a tiny gear in a large machine, so it’s important to remember that you’ll typically play much less, with a higher degree of expected precision. It’s a decidedly disciplined and stressful setting to work in at times.
JS: Because you are such a versatile player, you have done a lot of different gigs. What are a few of your favorites?
JF: Ah so many…
Playing at Muzikmesse in Frankfurt, Germany with Jon Finn Group, watching the audience form a mosh pit!
Playing in Southern France in front of an audience that was genuinely appreciative.
Playing in Tokyo with a group of Japanese musicians who took the time to learn my material.
Performing in Casablanca with a group of musicians who taught me how to play Morroccan 6/8.
Any gigs where Guthrie Govan, or Andy Timmons, or John Petrucci, or Steve Morse sat in with my band.
Playing the songs “Dream On” and “Walk This Way” with Steven Tyler and Joe Perry in front of a live audience of over 1 million people.
Playing Banjo with the Boston Pops Orchestra with John Williams conducting and Morgan Freeman doing a live narration.
Opening for Jeff Beck in my hometown.
JS: What is next on your musical horizon?
JF: Career wise, I still do quite a lot of freelancing and teaching, in addition to playing with my own band. I like having several things going because I get too restless otherwise.
Musically, I work a lot on very simple principles: playing in tune, in time, with a good feel and tone. I work a lot on learning to find the “right” thing to play at any given moment. It’s important that my chops are sharp, but chops should never be a reason to play something. To me that means the music should always come first, and my ego takes a distant back seat. It all sounds so simple when I think of it that way. I think you go through stages and you don’t arrive at any point until you’re ready. Keep practicing. More importantly, love the music as you practice it.
Thanks for the wisdom Jon! So for anyone out there pursuing their guitar dream, you might want to take a page out of Jon’s playbook. Play what you love, work on the hard things, and diversify. Who knows, you may just find yourself being a “lucky” guitarist!