It’s about saying it, right?
Victor Wooten is no stranger to holding an audience in rapt attention, but the crowd that gathered at The Guitar Center in Phoenix, Ariz. was awaiting much more than a performance.
Wooten hosted a clinic at the Center Monday night to offer his insights on how to play better music faster. After a brief performance, he fielded questions on everything from his strings to his personal gains from a life of music. While taking the time to answer each question individually, he continually returned to a few general themes.
Playing on stage, Wooten explained, was an attempt to take from inside his mind and find a way to transmit it outwards. Much like when he speaks, using words as a means to convey sentiments to others through his mouth, Wooten uses a variety of techniques to convey music through a four-string bass.
“Everything you get,” he said, “is second generation.”
The role of intermediaries made it important for Wooten to spend time finding instruments and equipment that made him feel closest to what he imagined and most comfortable communicating it, both physically and mentally. Physical comfort he said were at the root of his preference both for four strings and nickel strings, while his choice in amplifiers that combined paper and aluminum allowed him to focus on what was on his mind.
The brighter tone and “snap on the top” that the amps produced, for Wooten, most closely mirrored what he heard internally, allowing him to forget the amplifiers, instrument, strings, and notes entirely. Without their burden, he could do what he wanted – play the music from inside.
Music is a language
Wooten, born into a band of masters like his older brothers Reggie and Roy, learned to play his instrument much like the rest of us learn to talk. He was surrounded music often, and he knew what he wanted to “say” before he had the technical capabilities to articulate it.
“When you learn the word milk, you already know what it tastes like,” he said. “You learn the word because you want more.”
Treating music like a language, while a seemingly intuitive concept, does not come naturally to musicians honing their craft of self-expression. Rather than learning music by immersing ourselves in it, playing with it, experimenting with it, individuals are tempted to spend the majority of their time practicing playing songs and scales “right,” essentially learning to speak one word, or one sentence at a time.
“When you learn to talk, it’s not about saying it ‘right.’ It’s about saying it, right?” he asked. “It’s about expression.”
Victor Wooten’s Brooklyn (Instrumental)
Don’t practice, play music
Throughout the clinic, Wooten cautioned against over-practicing, encouraging musicians in the audience not to “learn how to” or “practice” their instruments, but to go ahead and play them.
Making the tedious-but-necessary exercises like going through scales a game of musical experimentation would allow musicians to get a better sense of themselves.
“If I have to practice the scales anyway, I might as well groove, right?” Wooten said as he grooved his way through the chromatic scales. With a smile on his face, he added “This is fun!”
Another danger of practicing rather than playing, Wooten explained, was a tendency to fear and recoil at wrong notes rather than find a way to play with them. He played in a randomly selected key for a few moments before intentionally hitting a wrong note, then sliding into “the next note.”
“On either side of a wrong note is a right one,” he said, “Whether you go up or down, once you know where it’s goin’, it sounds alright.”
He added that grooving on a wrong note (or wrong notes) could just as easily make it fit into the song like a missing piece.
“People like to feel music because they like to dance,” he said, adding that making the audience feel the music was just good, if not better, than playing music according to conventional wisdom.
To prove his point, he started grooving using nothing but the five “wrong notes” of his selected key.
“I can groove it so hard that the band sounds wrong!”
When asked about how he practiced, Wooten invited a member of the audience, Jamie, onto the stage to take up a bass and play for a moment then participate in a brief exercise. As Wooten described it, child could easily do this exercise, but many adults would struggle with it.
Wooten told Jamie to imagine the drummer in his band on stage with him and to play along with him, forgetting about his own bass and the audience.
“Let [the drummer] come first,” Wooten said.
Jamie played for a few moments, working in a few complex combinations and licks, before after a brief stumble, Wooten chimed in, “Now who missed the beat? Did your drummer miss the beat?”
He urged Jamie again to forget about the bass and let the drummer come first.
Jamie started playing again, but softer this time, with fewer flourishes. Wooten looked up at the audience nodding and stepping away from the microphone.
“Perfect. Right on,” he mouthed the words in order to avoid distracting Jamie. “Like a metronome.”
He told Jamie to keep playing while he spoke to the audience, and explained that what happened was Jamie was no longer held back by a desire to play something impressive or proper. He simply wanted to play along with his drummer, “and no one’s going to imagine a drummer with bad time.”
By abandoning efforts to “pass the bass test” and showcase his technical skill, Wooten added, “he’s playing music from the inside.” Unlike the licks and tricks he first played, the groove he was playing with his imaginary drummer was more musical. “This will get him hired,” Wooten said.
Wooten then encouraged Jamie to experiment and allow himself to add in the flourishes he wanted to include at the beginning, but to incorporate them into what he was playing with the drummer. Jamie played, Wooten nodded, and eventually had to cut him off.
“All right, now give me back my bass,” he said with a grin.
“That’s how I practice. Even when I play alone, I’m never playing alone.”
After nearly two and a half hours of answering questions, Wooten closed the clinic by walking the audience through his rendition of “Amazing Grace,” pointing out the dramatic shifts and spacing, pacing, and style that made the song unique and enjoyable for people along the way.
Before heading to the table to sign posters, basses, and books, Wooten asked audience members to shout out what music was about to them.
“Love.” “Awesome.” “Joy.” “Excitement.” “Experimentation.” “Listening.”
“No one said ‘theory,’ no one said ‘notes,’ no one said ‘scales.’” Wooten said. Whatever music was about, he said, “that’s what should be at the forefront of your being when you play.”
Written by Rachel Cheeseman
OurVinyl | Contributor
(FYI – Wooten’s playing another show in the Phoenix area at the Marquee Theatre in Tempe on Feb 23rd)