Berklee Blogs

First-hand accounts of the Berklee experience

Ben Levin: My Private Session with Steve Vai (part one)

Have you ever had a conversation with your biggest creative influence? Guitar performance student Ben Levin did, with Berklee alumnus Steve Vai—and wasn’t disappointed.  Here’s the first part of his kinda crazy, very L.A. experience. More next week.

I recently won a contest where Steve Vai picked 10 guitarists to fly out to Los Angeles for a private master class. Steve Vai has been my greatest musical influence and needless to say, I have been ecstatic about the opportunity. The experience was really fascinating and inspiring, so I thought I’d share it with you and try my best to relay what Steve was telling us.

Steve Vai with Ben Levin. Photo taken by Dan Cristol.

Steve Vai with Ben Levin. Photo taken by Dan Cristol.

I flew from Boston to LAX where a transportation service picked up all the contest winners, and took us to our hotel. Upon entering the hotel lobby, the first thing I saw was a large tank behind the front desk with a mannequin in it. Upon further inspection I realized the mannequin was actually a real human and a living human nonetheless. To my right, there was a display of a woman in a dress and high heels tearing down drywall. It was a Tuesday night yet the hotel was bustling with people dressed in the finest/tightest attire, and I felt like I was in an episode of Entourage. My hotel room featured a bright orange bathroom and a thermostat that simply read “blow; hard, harder, stop.” I headed back downstairs and sat down in the hotel’s swanky restaurant to have dinner with the other contest winners. There was a door in the back of the restaurant that led to a mysterious room lit only by strobe lights. As we ate our dinners, people would stumble in and out of the strobe room adjusting their outfits. It was surreal to be in such a crazy place under equally crazy circumstances. I felt at home however, when I got to know the other guitarists. These guys were so nice and supportive and it reminded me of hanging out at Berklee.

The next morning, we didn’t have anything scheduled until the clinic at night, and I didn’t want to sit around in the hotel room feeling nervous about meeting Steve, so I took the opportunity to meet up with one of my mentors and dear friends Josh Brill. Josh taught me at the Berklee summer programs when I was in high school and has really helped me develop as a musician and as a person. Josh has an incredible gift for getting people to see things from a positive perspective, and talking to him all morning really helped settle my nerves. Naturally, I really hoped Steve Vai would like me and I had prepared a press kit to share my music with him. I was fairly anxious about meeting him because I didn’t want to miss my chance to become friends with my idol. Josh helped me see that whether Vai and I became pals or not, I had already won by being invited there in the first place and that I should savor the moment for what happens rather than what could happen. He helped me realize that if I enter the clinic from a positive position of gratitude rather than expectation, I would enjoy the clinic more and have a more meaningful experience. I decided that I would focus on what Steve already gave me by flying me up to meet him, rather than on what could happen. I still planned on giving Steve my music, but I refused to invest myself in how he would receive it. Although my mind still wandered away from that idea every now and then, I was definitely on a good course.

That night at the clinic the other guitarists and I sat in the show room of a huge Guitar Center and eagerly awaited Steve’s arrival. Each contest winner received a free guitar and wah-pedal, and after taking a moment to tune up we all began WAILING FURIOUSLY on our new instruments! After all, we were in a guitar store. When Steve Vai entered the room I got that “oh @#$%, there he is!” kind of feeling. He walked on the stage, looked around at everyone, turned to me and said, “Hey, I’ve met you before!” In a roar of excitement I replied “Yeah four times!” (Which is true.) He said, “Man you could be my brother-in-law or something,” and like an idiot I replied, “Well, actually I am your brother’s brother-in-law.” Then it got quiet for a second….


Can our hero get his foot out of his mouth? Find out in part two next week.


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