I have found a book written by one of the best bass players on the planet about how to study Music and Life. I capitalize Music and Life because Victor L. Wooten does so in his book, The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music, first printed in 2006.
Tony Levin, a venerated bass man himself with a 40 year session pedigree and long stints with King Crimson and the Peter Gabriel Band, said of this work, “Victor Wooten has been doing things on the bass that nobody dreamed of, and we bass players can’t help but hunger for some insight into what inspires him and how he does it. Here, as in his Music, he surprises us and gives us more depth than we expected, more of himself than many would dare.” You may know Wooten from his work with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.
I know. Normally a reviewer would put a quote like that at the end of a review to emphasize what the reviewer had been expressing. However, I trust this is not a review but a celebration.
I cannot give you my opinion on this incredible story. I can’t because the concept of an opinion with regard to this work is trifling. The experience of reading this book changed my playing, my approach to practicing (which I never relished but regarded as necessary drudgery), and yes, this read indeed changed my life. We could talk about all that but who cares, right?
So, let’s talk about the story. Early on Victor talks about a strange man named Michael who shows up unannounced in Victor’s apartment. Not at the door but inside his locked apartment. Michael became a friend, a prophet, and a seer in Victor’s life. On my first read I made a mental note to ask Victor someday whether Michael was real, or a tool Victor was using to get his point across. By the second read I realized that did not matter and I was letting that discussion in my head get in the way of what Victor was trying to show me. If Michael was a literary tool then Wooten is a brilliant writer and teacher in his own right. Wooten was able to separate himself from the Michael character and come across genuinely as confused as the reader. If Michael was real than Victor is one of the luckiest guys on the planet.
One of the most powerful statements comes in the Prelude chapter (sort of a Chapter 2; open the book you’ll see what I mean) that ultimately validates everything that comes after.
“I’m not sure if [Michael] ever outright lied to me, but I know that he frequently stretched the truth. Whenever I questioned him about it, he would answer with, ‘Truth? What is truth? Did you learn from the experience? Now that is important. And by the way, if I always tell you the truth, you might start to believe me.’”
Think about that statement. What Michael was showing Victor was not entirely how to play Music as much as how to play Life. What he was trying to get Victor to understand, and thus the reader, was that Michael couldn’t teach him truth. If I got this right, he was trying to get Victor to see he needed to absorb everything he was being shown to develop his own truth. Once the reader embraces that, he or she can follow the examples of Michael and file them away for themselves.
In an early chapter Michael challenges Victor to come up with ten key elements of Music. Admitting there are thousands, they made a list. They named these elements Notes, Articulation, Technique, Feel, Dynamics, Rhythm, Tone, Phrasing, Space and Listening. Victor spends the next ten chapters, which he calls Measures, discussing and dissecting each. At the beginning of each Measure is a statement that hits you with a sense of what the Measure will be like. For instance, in the beginning of Measure Two titled Notes is the line, “If you stopped playing notes Music would still exist.” Victor sets up your thinking up to be open to the message of each Measure.
A recurring theme is understanding how we learn skills. When we are learning a language as youngsters we learn by immersion and participating. I am 66 years old and I can conjure up the sound of each my children’s beginning attempts at language. They were mimicking the sounds they heard from us. What came out once they started didn’t make any sense, but they were grooving.
A personal aside. We are all guilty of mimicking them back with baby talk, but that probably doesn’t help this process.
No one put us in language classes and graduated us up levels as we grew. Kidlings are surrounded by language and it looks so cool they want to participate. Then by three they can communicate pretty well, and we can’t get them to shut up.
With Music, we need to study and practice theory to advance to high levels, much like a college language student, but to play Music all you need is to surround yourself with players. Practitioners of styles like jazz and classical benefit from theory study and long hours of practice, but that work is not as crucial as playing along with those better than themselves. There are just as many styles where listening and playing along are all that is required, such as folk, blues and bluegrass. I can practice blues scales and the effort is dry. I put on a Buddy Guy record, pick up my Strat and magic happens. Sure, doing the scales helped but there are millions of self-taught players who couldn’t tell a pentatonic from a carburetor and play like the wind.
My mother never used a measuring cup making her spaghetti sauce and she made the second-best sauce west of Sicily. (The best of course, is my wife’s.)
Victor uses his experiences with Michael to articulate all the elements, each with their own Measure. Michael uses nature, a cast of characters all very Michael-like but each with a different message, and the occasional jam session where Michael would play guitar with Victor following on bass. The deep dive into each element has lessons in Music but are also about Life. I am beginning to believe the two cannot be separated.
Victor has a remarkable story in which Michael takes him to a park outside Nashville after they played together at a gig. As you can imagine this happens at three in the morning. After talking about the sounds of the lake and forest around them, Michael begins to sing in a low mesmerizing tone. After immersing himself in listening Victor felt a wet lump hit his lap. It was a bullfrog who happened to be a friend of Michael’s. Then looking around Victor sees they are surrounded by frogs, deer, racoons, and all manner of the night community. Victor closed his eyes and immersed himself again. He felt Michael stop and he opened his eyes. Michael lifted a sleeping snake from Victor’s lap and led the snake to the ground.
Michael then discussed how creatures could hear; after all the nocturne cacophony is all about them singing and talking to each other. But they could feel his Music as well. Feel is one of the elements and musicians immediately identify that with their feel on an instrument. It is also about the feel of the Music around you, not just with a band but all around us every day. All band musicians have had moments when something snaps in a tune and a zap flows through the band. Everyone feels it and looks at each other in awe. The misguided believe their talent causes that, but Michael will tell you it has nothing to do with talent. One must be ready for the moment.
In 1975 I was in a band that played rock reminiscent of Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. The lead guitarist scored a gig for New Year’s Eve. We were thrilled; New Year’s gigs were always a blast and beat the crap out of sitting home and watching a ball drop. When David told us where we were playing, we literally did not believe him. David was a bit of a prankster.
The American School for the Deaf is the oldest such school in the country and still in West Hartford, CT. Apparently, the entertainment director had caught us playing somewhere and contacted David. We were certainly skeptical, but a gig is a gig.
That night was incredible, a memory I cherish. Those kids danced their asses off. We were talking this over at a break, marveling at the tempo of the dancers matching the songs. Our opinion was they could feel the beat through the floor, and that certainly had to be true. We could feel that. One of the teachers we were talking with told us the floor was a part of it, but didn’t we notice the kids stopped immediately at the end of the song? She pointed out the floor was still shaking from the kids stomping around but they stopped because they could Feel that the Music had stopped.
The Music Lesson is an incredible journey into the mind and Music of Victor L. Wooten looking into your mind and your Music. You do not need to be a musician to appreciate the lessons of this story. My belief is if you read this, and you definitely should, a high percentage you will look for an instrument you’ve always wanted to try but believed you couldn’t pull off. This book will show you the way.
Tony Levin stated that ‘Victor Wooten is the Carlos Castaneda of music.” A very apt comparison. I would add, Alice in Wonderland.
Enjoy. Then enjoy it again. Then get a copy for your best friend.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Jason Mouratides, cropped to fit format.