Victor Wooten: Music as a Catalyst for Life Lessons

Well-known American bass player, Victor Wooten is going to be doing a free clinic here in Rochester, NY at the House of Guitars tomorrow (Nov. 13th). He teaches us not only music lessons, but life lessons through his novel The Music Lesson, his clinics and summer camps, and if you listen carefully it’s in the way he plays his music. Both of his new albums, “Words and Tones” and the instrumental version, “Sword and Stone” will be available for purchase and photography and autographing is permitted at the event. He will also be performing a show at The German House later that night.

I had the privilege of speaking with Wooten before these events, and knowing how his teachings and messages have helped me despite my lack of musicianship, I wanted to bring this idea to light: that music is a catalyst for the life lessons he shows all of us. He reinforced his values of being honest in his performance on stage, cherishing the relationships that matter with family and loved ones, and sharing the secrets he’s learned that allow anyone to get in touch with the soul in their work, and find their true voice.

It is so refreshing to see an artist who is a five-time Grammy award winner, and who has received titles such as “The Bass Player of the Year” by Bass Player magazine, and who is still so humble and grateful and who shares concerns about the state of the music industry as a whole, and seeks to spread awareness to have us ask ourselves, “what do we value most”?

Sara Tiberio: So I know you grew up in a very musical family, and I did as well but I didn’t really get the musical talent per say, it just wasn’t my calling. Yet somehow I still have a very strong connection to music, and everything I do still relates to music, whether it’s photographing concerts, interviewing musicians, or booking shows. I just feel that growing up with musicians allowed me to have an appreciation for and really a deep sense of loyalty to music. So do you think it’s possible that if we don’t play music we can still have a deep relationship with it?

Victor Wooten: Well you are proof of that absolutely, some of the most musical people I know don’t play an instrument, and actually a lot of times not having an instrument allows you to be more musical because a lot of musicians get stuck because of the music instrument, but my parents, aunts uncles, they knew so much about music and they would tell us about music, those were the most musically inspiring. And yes, you are absolutely proof of that.

Sara: Now I know you wrote your novel The Music Lesson quite a while ago now, but it’s messages are still relevant, and it’s not solely about music lessons but about life lessons. So I want to know can anyone have a relationship with their craft the way you explain one can form a relationship with music? How can we apply it to our own lives no matter what we are doing? How can we feel the groove in painting or photography or cooking?

Victor: Right, the beautiful thing that people have offered me with this book is they have come up to me and explained to me or written to me about how they use that 1 through 10 step list. The first person that did it was a master gardener and she teaches part of the nature department at my Music & Nature camps, you know notes articulation, space, she went through everything and showed me how she used it in gardening. And I was hoping to see that because I understood it but I wanted to make sure others did. In my mind I am talking about life but I am calling it music, because music is a safe way for me to talk about anything, I can address topics of religion, politics, racism, equality, inequality, but if I call it music that’s still safe. That’s what I do.

Sara: I’ve heard you are writing a sequel to your novel The Music Lesson, can you talk about that?

Victor: Sure. Very true- I am. It pretty much starts where the last book left off, but the idea in the first book is you find out that music is sick, people don’t feel me anymore, I have a more intimate relationship with computers than humans, so in the next book (it doesn’t have a title yet) music is not only sick but dying and literally disappearing from the world and what will that look like? As if music were an actual species like an animal that becomes extinct, and as science shows it doesn’t come back, so what will the world look like? So I am using real life situations, but like the first book in a fictional context, like the fact that CD and record stores have disappeared, major record labors are disappearing, and also some smaller things that go unnoticed. And where I listed 10 elements of music, well look at the possibility of those elements disappearing, like most of what you here on the radio is pitch corrected and everything is time corrected, everything is also compressed, and what compression does is make all the volume levels one level. That’s why TV commercials sound louder, it’s to grab your attention. On the radio everything is produced the same way, so we’re not even getting all the dynamic levels. So are we killing music little by little, element by element, and if so what’s going to happen, what can we do?

Sara: Yeah I can relate to that as a photographer, we are losing film, and the aspect of manually operating a camera and the hands on connection to what you are doing, like developing an image in the darkroom.

Victor: Right. That specialness that used to be called photo has begun to disappear. Now everything can be done on the computer, so I can take a horrible picture and fix it later, it’s like music, it’s like families, the family unit is not what it used to be so again we’re going to look at it and call it music.

Sara: My brother Ben, a bassist, who had the privilege of having a short music lesson with you in Miami tells me that playing seems to come as easy to you as talking. Can you talk a little bit about your process of music or songwriting? Does it come as naturally as playing does for you?

Victor: Yeah it pretty much does come not as naturally as talking but close, and it’s because of how I learned to play music, and when I learned to play music, I learned to play music as I was learning to speak English, and very much in the same way, what I mean by that is when you learn a language there are a few things we do that are so natural, that for example when you are a child learning to speak English no one teaches it to you, your just talking, but you’re allowed to talk back, even though you make mistakes no one corrects you, if you say a word incorrectly over and over your parents learn it your way, they say it your way, they don’t say blanket its blankie. The people you talk to aren’t babies, you’re talking to people much bigger than you. You’re never made to practice, and you’re never told what to say, so how could you ever get good at it? And you get good at it quick because that process is very natural, and any child that grows up in a musical family, will be good and will be called a child prodigy, and actually that is the recipe for a child prodigy, not just in music, but circus acts, gymnastics, whatever it is, when that child approaches that task with that criteria that person will be good at it naturally, it will be as if they were born doing it.

Now lemme say this- there are some people who are just born with it, and to me those are the true child prodigies, born with a gift of painting or a gift of knowledge. I just was born into a musical family and was allowed to follow that natural process that works for all of us, I don’t believe I was born with a special gift to play music no more than anyone else.

Sara: Are there any particular artists past or present that you really would have liked or would like the opportunity to perform with?

Victor: Sure. There are many, my brother Rudy who plays sax is now past, he died a few years ago, so he’s one for sure. I’ve played with him before but I’d love the chance to play with him some more. The same with my kids- I’m able to play with them more and more as they get older and better. I could name musicians people know like Miles Davis, John McLaughlin, Stevie Wonder… but I don’t sit around thinking about that. I’m grateful for the people I have played with and if those opportunities came along I know I would appreciate it.

Sara: So your kids are all very musical as well?

Victor: They didn’t really have a choice. (laughter) But yes they are.

Sara: Yeah growing up with my father as a music teacher, that was my one requirement as well- I had to play a music instrument. Even if it wasn’t my career, and I did benefit from it even though it isn’t the path I am taking.

Victor: I can’t say they’ll (kids) follow it as a career either but I can guarantee they’ll play and enjoy it for their whole lives.

Sara: What is your favorite emotion to play? When I did play, mine was sadness, because I could play more freely and I always felt better after, as if it was a healing experience.

Victor: Yeah, well this is not really considered an emotion but I’m going to say it anyway: truth or honesty, because that’s what I’m being on stage even when I’m playing sadness and I’m not sad, that’s still an honest emotion that I know and I can feel, and my own goal on stage is to really be who I am even when I have to call upon those emotions when they’re not really there.

Sara: Yeah I agree, and I think the crowd can feel it when a musician is being honest, even if it’s on a subconscious level, and it affects the performance.

Victor: If I were to just play happiness all night we would lose the effectiveness. It’s like a movie. There’s contrast, an action movie can’t just be action the whole time, and I view my musical concert the same way.

Sara: So you’re going to be doing a clinic at the House of Guitars here in Rochester tomorrow. What can fans expect who have never been to your clinics before and what should they bring with them?

Victor: They should bring a notepad. Yeah, anytime you go someplace to learn be prepared to take notes, and for me my thought is that if you don’t you’re really not that serious about it. People tend to expect a different approach to music, they’ll probably hear things about music that they haven’t heard before, and that may contradict what they’ve always thought.

I just want to add that we do have two brand new records, one is a vocal record entitled “Words and Tones”, if you take the “s” and flip it around it becomes the title of the instrumental version “Sword and Stone” we will have those available tomorrow for purchase.

Sara: Thank you very much for your time and I will see you tomorrow at the clinic.

Victor: Yes, be sure to introduce yourself.

Sara: I will.

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