Dec 12, 2012

"The Music Lesson" by Victor Wooten

Carter, who has been playing bass in one of my combo classes for a couple of years, is moving from the Bay Area to Pennsylvania to take a university teaching job. As a going-away present, he gave each member of the group a copy of Victor Wooten’s The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music. The publisher classifies it as “Music/Inspirational.” This book contains a wealth of good advice, and is quite entertaining. I can recommend it to any musician. Wooten is a great bass player; it's worth paying attention when he offers us a "Music Lesson."

I’ve been hearing about Wooten’s book for several years, but hadn’t read it until now - Thanks, Carter!

"The Music Lesson" is a novel describing a series of encounters between the narrator (a stand-in for Wooten, or for the reader) and several guru-type figures, who bring him enlightenment regarding music and life. The main teacher, “Michael,” informs him that music is made up of ten interrelated elements. Ten of the book’s chapters cover these elements. Each of these 10 chapters is a story elaborating upon, and elucidating, one of these elements.

Following is a list of the book’s chapters. I’ve included short quotes or comments to give you some idea of the points he covers, but Wooten's discussions are much deeper, frequently going beyond nuts-and-bolts music, and into a more cosmic realm.

Prelude: Wooten sets the stage by introducing his narrator and “Michael,” his mystical guide.
Groove: This is important enough that it rates first mention, over and above the following 10 “elements” of music. “Never lose the groove in order to find a note.”
Notes: “Notes are overrated” (by "notes," he means viewing music as chords and scales).

Articulation/Duration: “Notes are alive and like you and me, they need to breathe. The song will dictate how much air is needed.” And, comparing animal tracking to listening to music: “...the tracker, if he is a good one, can see right into the soul of whoever left the tracks...A good musician should be able to do the same.”

Technique: “Your technique should be at such a high level that you can forget about it.” And, “We practice our scales, modes, and techniques over and over...I propose a different path.”

Emotion/Feel: Here he discusses the ability of music to emotionally affect the listener, and the necessity of using this power responsibly. “Strive to make Life better, and you will have all of Life’s power backing you.”

Dynamics: This chapter offers a lesson in using dynamics to change the focus of the audience - for example, playing quieter as a way of quieting an inattentive audience (I’ve used this technique, and it sometimes works).

Rhythm/Tempo: Here he describes some exercises to improve one’s sense of time and groove, using a drum machine; he extrapolates his points to a larger view: “Music is alive, and if you treat her that way, she will speak to you. You will feel her pulse.”

Tone: “If you want your audience to dance, you should use a certain tone. If you want them to quiet down and listen, another tone may be necessary. If you want them to be healed, an altogether different tone...”

Phrasing: “All the elements of music can be phrased, not just the notes.” And, “You can phrase your life, too.”

Space/Rest: We should “play the rests.” “Learn how to make a rest speak louder than a note.”

Listening: “I found that when I listened to the other musicians more than I listened to myself, I played better.”

The Dream?: The narrator has a summing-up conversation with Music, herself.
Coda:  The narrator/Seeker becomes a Teacher.

Many of Victor Wooten’s points will already be familiar to experienced musicians: for example, the limitations of “notes,” playing the rests, and the absolute importance of groove. But it’s always good to be reminded, and it’s done in an entertaining way. The “New Age” stuff might or might not work for you. You don’t have to buy in to all of it to benefit from (or otherwise enjoy) this book.

I have some opinions about the genre of inspirational books.

First, let me say that I am not much of a New-Age acolyte. I was raised in the rationalist tradition, and the only problem I see with an entirely rational worldview is that honest rationality compels us to realize its own limits. So I am not quick to accept magic, or for that matter New-Age spirituality, if it contradicts rationality.

There’s a fair amount of magic in “The Music Lesson,” but I don’t think we are expected to literally believe those stories. As Wooten writes, “[Michael’s] stretching-the-truth style was new to me, but once I understood how and why it was used, I added it to my own teaching method.”

“The Music Lesson,” like many inspirational books, is a dialogue between Teacher and Seeker. The Teacher imparts extraordinary knowledge to the Seeker, who will then be empowered (or not). For example, Don Juan Matus with Carlos Casteneda; Plato’s Socrates with his questioning students; R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural with Flakey Foont. Wooten is on the less mystical side of this genre, and approaches it with some humor.

A basic contradiction, inherent in this genre, is that the Seeker is generally cast as someone who is lacking, and in need of help. The Seeker thus begins from a disempowered position. The Teacher then imparts knowledge that will fix the problem. This dynamic always reminded me of mass advertising, where the ad tries to convince you that you have a problem (bad breath, dirty collar, etc.), then sells you a product that is supposed to fix it.

Take, for example, one very popular inspirational book, The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Each of its 12 chapters is titled, “Recovering a Sense of Safety,” “Recovering a Sense of Identity,” “Recovering a Sense of Power,” “Recovering a Sense of Integrity,” and so forth. Obviously, the reader is being asked to buy into the premise that he or she has lost these things - then the book/Teacher will help the reader/Seeker recover them.

Of course, if Seekers did not think they need help, we wouldn’t have these books. And I’m sure that most of these authors are sincerely motivated by the desire to help their readers. I’m just suggesting that this dynamic is an inherent contradiction, in works purporting to empower the reader/Seeker.

The way to rise above this disempowering dynamic is to “Think for yourself,” and “Be your own teacher.” Wooten makes this point repeatedly, as any good teacher should.

This book offers a lot of great perspective. But don't forget, we all still need to know our chords and scales.

Here are some links if you’d like to know more about Victor Wooten:

A bunch of Victor Wooten videos on - includes a bio.

The Music Lesson website, with further links to Victor's other sites

For a couple of stories about student/teacher dynamics in the jazz world, see these previous posts:

Lessons with Joe Henderson

Mike and Tom Take a Lesson With Charles Lloyd

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