Fresh off of his latest sit-in with The Roots on The Tonight Show, Victor Wooten is relaxing at the Relix office. “They’re always cool,” Wooten says of Jimmy Fallon’s house band. “They learn a few of my songs, and it makes me feel right at home.” The five-time Grammy winner’s newest record TRYPNOTYX came out this September, and he’s about to fly home to Nashville before jumping back on tour. With a calendar full of solo dates, and a few shows with longtime bandmates Béla Fleck and brother Roy “Futureman” Wooten as the Flecktones trio, he’s as busy as ever. After treating the Relix staff to a late-morning improvisation (over 15-minutes of grooves and sonic experimentation with no warm-up) Wooten took some time to discuss TRYPNOTYX, his musical philosophy and his affinity for bands like Snarky Puppy.
You just gave me a copy of your book, The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music. Tell me a little about it.
For 18 years I’ve been running music camps. Because of how I learned to play music, my thinking is a little different. I don’t claim to be better, but it is different. And so when I share music, most of the time people haven’t heard it put that way. The students were saying, “You need to write a book!” Which is what I didn’t want to do [laughs]. I didn’t want a “Wooten Method” or something that I’d have to defend. So I stayed away from it for years, until the idea hit me to write a story, to write a novel. The same way Avatar or Star Wars can be fictional, but with truth inside of it. You listen to Yoda talk about the force and all of that stuff. There’s some stuff in there if you really pay attention.
It’ll be 10 years old next year, believe it or not. So I’m writing the sequel now. The coolest thing about it is the book is in five languages now. They’ve been using it at Berklee and Stanford, and a bunch of different places like that. I didn’t expect that.
Wow. So I guess the Wooten Method is still kind of coming through?
The cool thing is that people treat it as more of a philosophy. Which is a little bit lighter than, “Oh, I’ve got to do this or that.” It’s just a way of thinking.
Would you say that’s maybe how you approach music—more from a philosophical standpoint than a rigid standpoint?
Yeah, but we all do. We all approach it from how we think about it first, and that thinking may tell us we have to practice eight hours, or something like that. But for me, I look at it just like talking. If you think about how you learned to speak English, that’s my approach to music. Exactly how you learned—nobody taught you. No one said, “Here’s what you have to practice first.” You learned the words you wanted to learn first. Up until you were at least five years old, no one even corrected you when you said things wrong. If you said words wrong, like “blankie” instead of blanket, your parents would start saying it wrong too. So you’re always made to feel free with however you talk. You get to do it your way and learn what you want first.
But in music, it’s backwards. We tell you what to learn first. You have to learn our way first, before you can express your way. That locks most people up. Most people play now out of fear of messing up, rather than freedom. We’ve got to work back to that freedom.
I learned to speak English at the same time I was learning to speak music. And more importantly to me, is in the same way, the way my brothers taught me, or the way they didn’t teach me. And that’s how the book is approached. It’s more of a natural approach. Some people call it a spiritual approach, but for me it’s just more of a natural way, because it’s the way you learn to talk.
Definitely. And even the way you just performed here at _Relix_—you just kind of woke up, sat down and played through the ebbs and flows of your day. It was amazing.
Exactly! Exactly right. None of us wake up and practice our ABCs before we go talk, you know? You just talk, and you don’t have to figure out what you’re going to say first.
For me, playing music is just like speaking. I can warm up while I play. I don’t have to start complicated and do all of that stuff. I don’t have to start off sprinting. I can walk first. And walking is sometimes even more beautiful than sprinting. So I don’t mind not warming up before I play.
I want to pick up something you said earlier about your camp. Obviously, you’re teaching your students, but I’m curious what they teach you?
Most of our camps are 15 and up. But we do a few camps a year that go below 15, down to 10 or 8—I can’t remember. But we get a lot of adults. All ages, all instruments, all levels. There’s no audition. You just go to my website, and register.
We do a camp every month—I have to work it around my touring schedule. I’m there 100% of the time at every camp, but I’m not the only instructor. If I wanted people to only think like me, I’d be the only teacher. But I want people to have choices. So there are a lot of people. There are people there that say exactly the opposite of what I say, which is cool. That way you have to decide for yourself what works for you. And it’s fun. We share what we might call normal things, which is like music theory, techniques, but in a lot of cases we go about them in a new way—a way that makes it easy. We like to follow Einstein’s quote that says, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t know it well enough.”
So even a second grader can learn music theory the way we teach. It’s nice seeing people’s eyes open wide, and their brains kind of free up. I love it.
Is teaching always something you’ve imagined yourself doing, in addition to touring?
No [laughs]. No, the teaching thing came as a result of touring, and being in magazines like Relix, or Bass Player magazine. When you start getting known, people think you must be good. So that leads to people wanting to know how and why you do what you do. That’s what led to the teaching. But I had never taught anything. I didn’t know how to teach, so when it started happening, I started looking at how people were teaching, and what people were teaching. And I liked it, but I also realized that what I felt was the real good stuff was being left out. A lot of times in music, they just teach us notes. And we call it music theory. But music theory deals with 12 notes. And that’s almost it. Meaning scales…key signatures, notes, chords, harmony, mode…
Not even the mechanics yet, maybe the mechanics of notes, but it’s not the mechanics of what makes you you. And when I bought my bass, I bought the same notes that all my heroes have. My heroes aren’t so good that they get extra notes. It’s all the same. So I can buy the notes. But how come when I play what my heroes play, I don’t sound like them? It lets you know that there’s something else there. And it’s that something else that interests me. And that interests me because when I researched teaching, most people weren’t teaching it.
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