Victor has a message for us: Keep Going
As anyone who has seen him play knows, Victor Wooten is a wizard with a bass guitar. Whether he’s playing with his brothers Regi, Roy, Rudy, and Joseph; collaborating with Steve Bailey in Bass Extremes; backing banjoist Béla Fleck in the Flecktones; or contributing to such special projects as SMV with Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller or the prog-metal band Octavision, where he shares the bass duties with Billy Sheehan, Victor always brings his technical command, versatility, ingeniousness, and — above all — musicality to everything he does. He’s also a skillful and empathetic teacher at his workshops and camps and at Berklee College of Music, where he’s a performance scholar in the Bass Department.
Victor has written a method book called Bass Workshop: The Language of Music and How to Speak It [2017, Hudson Music] that comes with four hours of online video instruction, but his most innovative concepts are captured in two unique volumes, The Music Lesson [2008, Berkley Books] and its follow-up, The Spirit of Music, published by Vintage Books early this year in both print and audio versions. In these books, Victor goes way beyond standard music-education texts to offer profound insights into life and music through the teachings of a mystical sage named Michael.
Not long ago, I connected with Victor by phone at his home in Nashville to talk about his books. It was a fascinating conversation — here are some highlights.
What inspired you to write The Music Lesson?
It started from teaching at camps. I had come up with the idea of splitting music into ten equal parts. The students were like, “This is cool. You need to write a book.” And I kept saying, “Nope. I like giving you tools and pointing directions, and then you can find your way.” Then, when Steve Bailey and I were working on something for Bass Extremes, I flew into Myrtle Beach. Steve picked me up at the airport, and he had a copy of one of my favorite books, Illusions by Richard Bach [Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, 1977, Dell Publishing]. I had read it when I was 14 or 15. It’s about a teacher and a student, and that’s when the light bulb went off — don’t write a lesson book; write a story about a teacher and a student. Put the lessons in there, but people don’t have to get into that, they can just enjoy the story. So, that book gave me the way to do it, as well as what I had learned from one of my nature teachers, Tom Brown Jr. I got into nature after reading his book called The Tracker [The Tracker: The True Story of Tom Brown Jr., 1978, Penguin Books], which is about his teacher and him. A teacher and a student was the way to do it.
Michael teaches by asking questions, which is the Socratic Method. Did you study that in school?
My wife told me it was the Socratic Method. I learned it from my nature teachers as Coyote Teaching, where you answer questions with questions, so the students arrive at the answers themselves after learning so much more on the way. For about a decade I studied, on and off, with Tom Brown Jr. and learned a lot from him. That’s where I got the concept.
As you said, in The Music Lesson you break down music into ten parts. The first one is “Notes,” which covers pretty much everything that we think of as music theory.
When I started getting asked to teach, I researched what was being taught. I looked at books and magazines and videos and what teachers were doing, and I realized that a lot of people were teaching notes — scales, modes. And I thought, there are people teaching notes much better than me, so I’m going to teach everything but the notes.
Right — in your book, there are nine more parts, including “Dynamics” and “Tone” and “Feel.” How do you teach people about feel?
Feel is broad, because it can get into what you feel or what you want your audience to feel. If you’re going to score a movie, you need to understand feel; you need to be able to direct your audience to feel things. Or if someone says, “Hey, let’s play a blues,” the drummer will say, “What’s the feel?” A blues is a set of chord changes; the blues is a style of music, but there are so many feels. The feel doesn’t usually come from the notes. It can — you can create a sad feel or a happy feel, but what we call a sad feel, a six-note Aeolian, in Asia that’s their happy sound. So there’s something else that’s there besides the notes.
You write about the difference between teaching the “how” of music and teaching the “why.” When did you start thinking about that?
The idea grew more and more as I started to become a teacher. Because if I’m going to teach, what am I going to teach? The deeper I got into it, I realized that most of it is notes and how to play them. But there’s very little about the why. It’s not about finding your voice; they’re always telling you to find your voice, not that you already have your voice. When a baby is learning to talk, you don’t tell it to go find its voice. You work with the voice you have, and you’re recognized by that voice. But we don’t help to develop that in musicians. In music, we study everybody else. You’re never told to look at yourself.
When you finished The Music Lesson, did you know that you wanted to go on to what you cover in the second book?
Yeah, I knew it back then, because I had only introduced the concept of music being sick, and I knew I couldn’t leave it there. What do you mean, music is sick? I knew that there would be more, and I had to write it. I just didn’t know when. In 2011 I started writing the sequel, The Spirit of Music, but I wasn’t feeling it. I stopped writing until 2017, when I went back to finish it.
You have a lot to say in the second book about the negative effect of things like the poor sound quality of mp3s and the way recordings are being made with auto-tune and quantizing. How sick is music? How worried are you?
I’m not that worried, because I’m not a worrier — but it’s a real concern. So, I talked about tools that I use. Sometimes maybe I don’t like the tuning of that note at the end, so I’ll fix it. But I don’t let these tools take the place of musicality. What’s happening these days is that we’ll find non-musical people using the tools to make music, and it turns them into stars. There are people who can barely sing, but they’ll use auto-tune to make records. When the tools supersede the artist, there’s a problem there. I was doing my best to ask: Should we be concerned? Do you see a problem? What it really is, and this is the real thing, is that music is not reaching us the way it used to. When we went from 12 inches [of a vinyl record] down to a quarter of an inch, which is an mp3 through headphones, this is what kids think is normal now. They don’t buy records. And we don’t listen together anymore. Remember when we used to buy a record and we all listened to it? Both sides, and what song came after another song meant something. That’s gone.
The bad guys in The Spirit of Music are called Phasers, and they wear headphones. Is that because headphones make music an individual experience as opposed to a collective experience?
Right. In the original version of the book, those guys wore sunglasses. In my mind, I saw them in black suits and sunglasses, but I thought, this is too much like The Matrix. And then I was having a conversation about it with Steve Bailey, and in that conversation — I don’t remember who said it first — the idea of headphones came up, because we’re talking about sound. So they needed to be wearing headphones, not sunglasses. I’m not really against headphones, but I thought that was a better way to portray these people that take sound and put it out of phase.
When the Phasers show up, it gives the book an element of mystery that wasn’t in the first one. What pulled you in that direction? Are you a mystery reader?
I’m not a big book reader, but I love a story. I love something that makes me want to turn the page, and mysteries are good at that. I didn’t want this book to be just like the first one, but I definitely wanted it to be its companion. The mystery thing gives you something different. I wanted to make people turn the page to see how it’s going to end.
I was taken by the way you use language in the book, like when “alone” becomes “all one,” or “one for all” is transformed into “won for all.” It makes you think harder about words and meanings.
I can’t take credit for it. It was my brothers who got me thinking about language, especially Regi. Regi made me look at the sword and the stone — you take the letter S off the beginning of each word and put it at the end, and it becomes words and tones. So I ended up doing a vocal record called Words & Tones and an instrumental record called Sword & Stone. And then I just kept looking at my own words.
There’s wordplay like that in rap music. Do you listen to rappers?
The good ones are really wordsmiths. Divinity [Roxx], when I toured with her, she was into rap and would have me listen to stuff. She was heavily into Jay-Z, who I didn’t get at the time. On our last tour, in 2020, she had me listening to Anderson .Paak. But I’m an old-school guy. Back in my breakdancing days — the Fat Boys, Grandmaster Flash, Run DMC, that’s where it originated for me.
I was also struck by some of the things you did with numbers, especially around the concept of A=432 as opposed to the standard tuning of A=440. Where did you learn about that?
That again is my brothers. I got a lot of it from Regi, who has shared some of that at my camps, about A as 432 [hertz]. There are a lot of people who have different thoughts about 432 versus 440. I’m not here to say that 432 or 440 is better, but I do know that 432 lines up more with the numbers that we use to understand the universe, like the Fibonacci sequence.
Some of the things you talk about in your books are metaphysical or spiritual concepts, but in other places you have practical advice, like what you wrote about music publishing in The Spirit of Music. Are you using your books in your teaching at your camps and at Berklee?
The lessons in the books have come from what I teach. I just put it in a story form, so it’s not like I have to refer to a book. I will, but I never want to come across as if I’m trying to sell books. So I might say, “Yeah, I talked about this in The Music Lesson” or “I talked about this in The Spirit of Music,” but usually these are things I’m talking about anyway. For instance, I might be talking about publishing or contracts. While I can’t tell you what’s in my contract, I can tell you what should be in yours.
Has the response to the books affected your career direction, especially where you want to go in terms of different things in your teaching?
People have been making my books mandatory reading for students, and that’s been a total surprise. At schools like Berklee and Stanford and Curtis, there are so many people using them. I just talked to a class at a seminary, and they’re using The Music Lesson to discuss inspiration and creativity. It’s just amazing. My number one thing is to make people think. We go through so many years of school where it’s all about what the teacher thinks and very little about what we think.
The epigraph in The Spirit of Music is, “You Are Not Lost. Keep Going.” So where are you going?
I have a camp called The Spirit of Music, and the people who have been to that camp are reading a different book than the general public. There are things I’ve put in there just for them, and it starts with “You Are Not Lost. Keep Going.” When you come to our camp, you get off the highway and go under this spray-painted bridge, and it looks like you’re headed the wrong way. You go down this road — the directions tell you to do it, but it looks wrong, and then you hit the sign that says “You Are Not Lost. Keep Going.” So anyone who’s been to my camp is hooked right away. Anyone who hasn’t hopefully will just keep going because it tells you to, just like that sign on the road.
As for me, I have an idea of where I want to go, but I also want to make sure that I stay out of the way. In other words, I try to look with wide-angle vision. Where I thought I was going musically did not involve a banjo player, you know? So there’s something bigger than me that knows better than me. Music has been around for who knows how long, but I’ve only been around for 56 years. So how can I say I know where I’m going? –BM
Jim Roberts was the founding editor of Bass Player magazine (1990–97).
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