This is an updated version of my earlier post featuring some of Doug Pettway's photos from the clinic Click here to see more on Doug's site. Also, check out some of his handiwork - the man is a luthier of the first order!) I had a unique opportunity today - I got to attend a bass seminar with none other than Victor Wooten of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones and the Victor Wooten Band.
I had the chance to videotape most of the seminar for Victor and my bass teacher Anthony Wellington, Victor's former bass tech and a member of the Victor Wooten band (and a fine player in his own right).
Victor started by talking a little and then he just started to play. The brother played for 15 minutes of non-stop, I-just-made-this-up-in-my-head thumping. What a masterpiece. But he also had some really cool - and thought-provoking - things to say.
I couldn't stay for the whole seminar, but for what I could attend, Mr. Wooten laid some heavy stuff on us all. There were about 50 people there - all of them players and I believe all of them were - like me - Anthony's students.
After he blew us all away with this improvised piece, Victor answered a question about playing and I thought his answer was profound.
"We're not really concerned about playing," he said. "We're concerned about what people will think about the way we play. We don't seem to be afraid to play well in front of people. We lose it when we make mistakes."
"But whether I am a good player or a good musician does not depend on you," he said. "I can speak whether you like what I say or not, but my value, and my ability to speak is not determined by what you think of me," he added.
Good stuff, huh. I like how he also related playing music to speaking - it's a voice.
"We don't all speak English the same way," he said. "You don't talk like me, I don't talk like you. Don't expect to play like me when you play bass."
"You can't do what Marcus (Miller) or Stanley (Clarke) or any of those guys do, but that's because you're not them. You are you, and you need to speak the way you talk," Vic said.
I thought that was way cool, because often times we aspire to be like other musicians, but what he was saying was that we don't have to do that. You can be you. And you can express yourself through your instrument, and you don't have to worry about expressing someone else. And when you express what's in your heart, you will not sound the same way as someone else.
But Wooten reminded us that there is always pressure to conform.
"There's not much reward for individualism," he said. "Society doesn't like it, religion doesn't like it, and often we feel we are supposed to play music exactly the way it has always been. But that's not really being true to who you are." Especially if you have the talent and 39 years experience like Victor!
I asked Vic about a statement that Carlos Santana made in an interview with CBS Sunday Morning - he said that he is in the business of putting people in a trance. Vic agreed, noting that Carlos sometimes refused to play indoors and to wear shoes because he wanted to be in contact with the universe.
And he also mentioned talking to your instrument - literally having a conversation with the bass - like "why are you fighting with me!" He told the story of one player - a famous player he did not identify - who sat down and talked to his bassandd thanked it for being what it was. The strings, the tuning heads, the pickups, etc. And when he went to pick up the bass, it almost felt like it jumped on his shoulder. A little cosmic, I know, but there is something to the fact that the created order was made by words - but that's for another post.
Another goody Victor laid on us is when he said that we need to realize that we are all musical, otherwise we would not know what we considered good music. Playing (or singing) is only part of being musical.
In response to another question, Victor said that sometimes it's good to walk away from the instrument. Someone had asked why do players burnout. Vic's answer?
"Have you ever been in a relationship? You have a relationship with the instrument and like all relationships, it can get stale. So sometimes its best to walk away and then when you do come back, you have that fire, that passion."
Wooten said that if he could - if he could support his family another way - he would walk away from the bass for a couple years, simply because he is missing parts of his children's lives that he would like to be there for.
Victor also passed on some practical wisdom about just playing - we often want to play things that are patterns - scales, arpeggios, etc. But we get anxious about making mistakes and when we do, we lose the ability to play the rest of the tune because we are so upset. Vic's advice?
"I sometimes just play wrong notes on purpose," he said. "Sometimes, I will just sit down with the bass and play random things, no pattern, no scale, just jumping around on the fretboard." He illustrated that by doing just that while he was talking.
"If you can get that random thing clean, when you go back to your patterns or scales, they will be really clear," he said. It was great.
Victor also did not seem to care what other kids thought about his playing growing up. He had his brothers, and their input was far more important than his peer group. And his parents also had a big influence on the whole family.
"And they're not even musicians, but they are musical," Wooten said.
Vic was more than willing to answer any and all questions. The seminar was in the Prince Frederick Public Library, and the room was pretty much packed out with players. I don't know what will become of the video tape. I would love to sit down with Vic and a crew and do a seminar like that. Kind of like James Lipton and Inside the Actor's Studio, or like Dr. Billy Taylor used to do on Live From the Kennedy Center
As I said, I had to leave early. But my heart stayed there and will probably be gleaning from this brush with the master for a while. Who knows what will become of it.