Victor Wooten preaches a naturalist approach to learning music
If you have seen the jazz-fusion group Bla Fleck & the Flecktones perform, it probably occurred to you that Victor Wooten, the bands incomparably dexterous bassist, has had exquisite musical training.In fact, he has. When Wooten was 3, his brother Regi, four years his senior, took little Victor, gave him a toy instrument, sat him on a stool, and let him strum along as the rest of the Wooten brothers Regi, Rudy, Joseph and Roy jammed. The older boys didnt tell little Victor much; they were busy playing. But clearly something vital sank in. By the time he was in his teens, Victor had become the bassist in the Wooten Brothers band, which played around the Williamsburg, Va., area, and opened shows for Curtis Mayfield and WAR. In his mid-20s, he joined three other musicians banjoist Bla Fleck, pianist-harmonica player Howard Levy, and his brother Roy, who was now known as Future Man, and was playing an electronic percussion device of his own creation called the synthax drumitar who were known as much for their broad-mindedness as for their virtuosity. The Flecktones, with saxophonist Jeff Coffin having replaced Levy in 1992, has earned one of the widest followings imaginable, opening for the Grateful Dead, appearing at jazz and bluegrass festivals, and earning Grammy Awards in both pop and jazz categories. For most of those years, Wooten cruised along on automatic. He didnt reflect at all on his own skills which had become a source of much comment among fellow bass-players. Things that are natural to us, we dont look at, he says now. About 10 years ago, however, festivals and music schools began asking him to teach classes on the bass, and that prompted Wooten to begin looking more closely at his training, his development, and his approach to music. And thats when it dawned on him that his education listening to his brothers, informally finding his own way into the music, and just jamming and having fun had been an ideal one. Over the past decade of reflection, Wooten has sharpened his ideas about how people learn music. Those iconoclastic ideas formed the basis for The Music Lesson. The book, published earlier this month, is structured as a novel, but it focuses on a bassist, and his quest to become a musician, which turns into a spiritual journey.Wooten refers to music as a language, and uses spoken language as a metaphor for music. The foundation of his theory is that learning music is as natural as a child learning his native language, and thus should be approached in the same way. Formal lessons are unnecessary at best, stifling at worst. You listen, absorb, start wailing, then speaking. And you find your unique way of expressing yourself.I learned it the perfect way the same way you learned to speak English, said the 44-year-old Wooten by phone, as he traveled from a tour date in San Francisco to one in Sacramento. People got around you and spoke to you and you were allowed to learn to do it your own way. No one ever told you you were a beginner. Your parents recognized that, when you made mistakes, that was just your way of speaking. They even started speaking that way. That was just your way of speaking and they let you do it.Compare that to the typical musician, in the early stages of his pursuit. He picks up a guitar (or god forbid, drumsticks), makes a racket and the next thing you know, his parents are good-heartedly pushing him into lessons. There, our intrepid young player is taught how to stop making a racket, how to play properly to do things the way the teacher does them.Wooten doesnt deny that that method has worked; he concedes that the system has produced quite a few wonderful musicians. But for one thing, that method is not especially efficient: He points out that people can become polished, creative speakers in a few years, while mastering an instrument generally takes a decade or two. Further, its not the most natural way of learning to play music.If you have something to say in English, you learn [the language] quickly, said Wooten. But you see a kid whos watching a band, and he starts playing air guitar he has something to say. He may not know exactly what it is; its all emotion. So the parent gets him lessons, and its not, What does the student have to say? Its, What do I have to teach him?We want lessons to play music, not to practice it. Teach the kid to play then hell practice. Isnt that what we want to do? We want to play.Not only are lessons the wrong way to go about learning music, but the things that tend to get emphasized in formal training are not, in Wootens opinion, the most fundamental things.When we teach, we teach notes, a little bit of technique, and thats it, said Wooten. And theres only 12 notes how much theory do we need on that? The best players Ray Charles only had 12 notes. Theres something besides the notes.Wooten is no primitive when it comes to technique, glorifying the raw and unschooled approach. That couldnt be more apparent in his playing, including the thumb technique he learned by watching funk master Larry Graham. But he says there are other elements of musicianship that get overlooked in the rush to master technique.All parts are equal, but many bass players now put notes on the top of that list in importance, he said. But Im putting other things up in importance and most of these things are not taught. Articulation, tone, dynamics, space.And listening. If I were to put anything at the top, it would be listening. But there are no books on that.Wooten goes back to his own education to illustrate the point. I was learning everything about music, he says of those sessions with his brothers, except what notes to play. And that was how we learn English by learning the nuances and subtleties first. Id hear my mothers voice rise or fall, and Id learn the difference between a question and a statement. And you learn these things before you speak a word.Wooten says the Flecktones have been a proving ground for his notions about music education. He says all of the bands members, especially he and Fleck, learned largely by listening and experimenting. (Fleck likes to tell the story of his early lessons, with noted banjoist Tony Trischka. After a month or so of formal sessions, Trischka told Fleck that the teacher-student relationship had come to an end; from then on, it was just two musicians getting together to play.)We got an instrument and learned to play songs. Lessons came much later, said Wooten, who is in the midst of recording an album of holiday music with the Flecktones, due for release later this year. The musicians in the Flecktones all have their own voice. And thats because of the way we learned, and continue to think about music. We didnt have to go back and find our own voice; we always had it. That allowed the band to have its own voice.A more perfect example of a unique voice than Future Man could not be found. Seven years older than Victor, Roy Wooten wanted an instrument that would allow him to use his fingertips to play drum-like beats. He came up with the drumitar, an electronic percussion instrument configured and held like a guitar. The instrument took several years to make, and Futch, as he is called, went through a few models before he made one adequate to his task.To Victor, however, the intricacies and oddities behind his brothers instrument are beside the point. The instrument is not important, he said. Hes a drummer. He can play on a garbage can and a piece of notebook paper. Weve done that.Victor has his own voice outside of the Flecktones. He has toured in a bass-and-percussion duet with drummer JD Blair that is surprisingly grooving; an appearance at the old Double Diamond in Aspen had the dance floor filled. He is currently on tour with his Victor Wooten Band, which plays Wednesday, May 7 at Belly Up. The sextet features two of his brothers: Regi on guitar, and Joseph, who has been the keyboardist of the Steve Miller Band for a decade. Victor also has a series of highly regarded solo albums including Palmystery, released earlier this month and featuring contributions from guitarist Alvin Lee, saxophonist Karl Denson, Keb Mo, and several of his brothers. Of the title, Wooten said, Its a mystery. Lifes a mystery. But its also in the palm of your hand. Its a title thats supposed to make you think.On the educational side, Wooten is focused on creating a permanent campsite for his workshops. He and his wife Holly are building a 150-acre facility near where they live, in Nashville. The camp, like the workshops, will be called Bass & Nature.Whatever you do playing music, sports, conducting an interview we want to make it natural, he said. But musicians do it backward. We find a room, close ourselves off from the world, practice and we call it a woodshed. We think well be better at music, better at being a natural musician.I thought, What if I put myself in nature? Followed nature? Thats the key following natures firstname.lastname@example.org
The Victor Wooten Band performs Wednesday, May 7, at 9 p.m. Belly Up Aspen.
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