Victor Wooten, The Bass Whisperer


Aaron Doerr  St. Louis Public Radio


text-only version

Bassist/Musician/Author & Naturalist Victor Wooten shares many of the same holistic approaches to education as his fellow educator, author and advocate Cesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer.  The famous (and similarly self-taught) dog trainer’s tagline, “I rehabilitate dogs – I train humans”  represents Mr. Wooten’s approach to Musical Awareness almost completely and a substitution of ‘musicians’ for ‘dogs’ would summarize his outlook equally well. 
His 2008 book, The Music Lesson, details the semi-autobiographical rediscovery of Music through spiritual growth.  His music/nature camps offer a meditation on what it means to embrace Music and are ongoing this summer for their thirteenth year.  A new double disc record is in its final stages to be released on his own record label, Vix Records.  I caught up Victor by phone on the heels of the Bela Fleck and the Flecktones stop in St. Louis, and asked him about his ways.  I was also glad to hear that he was a fan of the Dog Whisperer reference.  Apparently, he’s a fan.

[AD] You know your holistic approach [to Music Education] does mimic [the Cesar Milan approach] to education.  How did that come about?  You’ve said before that there was just a NEED you felt a need for a more complete musical awareness –

[VW] YaWell… I just felt that people were leaving lots of things out – and lots of GOOD stuff out, when it came to teaching Music.  It seemed like the things that would really make people … INDIVIDUALS, and really… help them use the gifts they already have coming in to playing Music – people weren’t talking about that.  They were just kinda talkin about the same stuff, the same few points over and over that was  supposed to make us all great musicians and –

Is that the obsession with notes – the right notes?

Well ya mostly, I mean, to generalize it, yes:  it’s dealing with notes.  That’s the general thing and how we approach notes and then, what I found out is that not even all the good musicians knew it… the musicians that we love the most, it was when they kinda DID AWAY with that stuff and did things their own way – those are the people that stood out to us, like Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, and these guys it’s the… The Rolling Stones you know?  The Beatles and stuff it’s how they totally changed that stuff which… was how… It’s what made us love them.  And so It’s like – I think people, when they come in to playing Music, they have those abilities – that individuality.  And most of us teachers don’t address that at all.

Do you really think that everybody can become a musician?

… Oh ABSOLUTLEY, the same way everyone can play basketball.  Not everyone’s gonna be Michael Jordon… Or not everyone’s gonna be a Pat Metheny or a Bela Fleck but, ‘Can everyone be a musician? Absolutely!’  And that’s one of the main problems in our music system is that, as teachers, WE decide what a musician is or how it has to be played.  But a BABY is musical.

Right, and, for teachers in a classroom, or even instructors, they have to find a way to ASSESS… They have to be able to say ‘Here’s progress.’ Image When you’re a father and you see Adam playing with the guy from Prince [Dez Dickerson, picture, tweet from @VictorWooten], or sitting in with your brothers, it’s easy for you to see progress , success… How does that translate into the classroom where you have national standards – how do you see progress like a FATHER you know what I mean?

Well, it’s tough.  It’s actually tougher when you put a whole bunch of kids in a classroom and then especially when a teacher is forced to teach… with a goal of making students pass the same test.  That makes it tough.  That makes it tough but when thinking like a parent – and I’ve got four kids, right?  I recognize that my kids are different.  And I can’t force my kids to pass the same test.

In other words… I can’t expect my daughter to be able to do the same amount of pull-ups that my son can do… But I can’t expect my son to be able to see the same things that my girls can see.  You know?  I can’t even expect my two boys to be the same.  You have to understand your kids or your students on THEIR individualistic level and that’s the thing that a lotta schools don’t allow.  The system doesn’t even allow the teachers to do that.  We have to put our kids into the same group and force them to pass the same test and so that you know when we do that musically, it kinda causes us to teach Music in a certain way and force our students to be the same.  And then we have to send them off on their own to become individuals.  But MY point is, They came TO you as an individuals. Why not keep them there?  ImageAnd then all of a sudden we’re raising great individuals.  And not just an army of jazz or classical musicians…

I believe the classroom IS necessary, BUT, the bigger classroom is your life, you know?  And so… people in America don’t learn to speak English in a classroom.

And if you think about it that’s why we all have our own voice.   You don’t sound like anyone else in the world – unless you try.  But you never try.

You’re not forced to try to sound like someone else.  From day one you’re encouraged to have your own voice.  And think about it:  from DAY ONE, you were never really taught how to speak this language.  ImageYou were just encouraged and ALLOWED to speak  it.  And most of the time you were, as a baby ,you were speaking incorrectly.  If we were to put rules to it you were speaking WRONG – but no one cared, no one corrected you as a baby and no one made you practice.

So how in the world did you ever learn this language if you weren’t made to practice, you weren’t corrected, and everyone that spoke to you was better than you, you know?

And that’s exactly how you learned it.  You learned with your OWN VOICE.  And it’s because of those reasons no one corrected you no one ever told you you were wrong and no one ever made you practice.  What people did, to use a musical term, is people jammed with you.  With the English language you JAMMED all the time.

And as a baby, no one stuck you in a room with other babies and said ‘Hey, you can only talk to other babies until you’re good enough and then you get to talk to me.’  But with music – we didn’t do that with a language.  We spoke to you.. as a baby and when you spoke incorrectly we didn’t chastise you, we didn’t smack your hand, we CHERISHED you, we CELEBRATED the fact that you spoke wrong.  We thought it was cute!

And not only did we make you feel good about it, we learned YOUR way of talking.  We started saying it wrong too.  So when you’re learning a language you’re always made to feel good about how you’re doing rather than telling you that it’s wrong .  And that way however you speak you know it’s YOURS and you feel good about it and you get good at it.  And we KNOW you’re gonna get good at it.  We don’t even worry about.

But in MUSIC, you have to go through OUR system.  I’M the one who knows how to do it right so you have to listen to me or someone ELSE who wrote a book hundred years ago.

And it’s not that it’s wrong, but to teach that as the ONLY way?  Then in my mind, it’s a mistake.Image

A little thing about that though… – when you’re talking about imitation and trying to sound like somebody… I know some people who just simply WANT to imitate.  Is that an immature way of going about learning music?

No, it’s not…. It’s very beneficial… In my opinion there’s nothing wrong with that.  Because a little kid is always gonna emulate and imitate his older brother.  Or Michael Jordan, or LeBron James, or WHOEVER.  You know that’s part of it.  That’s how we GROW.

I imitated and emulated my older brothers as a kid – and that’s how I got good quickly.  A baby is imitating adults the way they speak.  That is the way they LEARN, right?

But it is when we as teachers teach you that our way is correct and if you mess up and DON’T do it like me you’re wrong.  All of a sudden we have a problem.

… To imitate is a part of evolution.  That’s how we learn, we have birds that are MOCKING-birds that’s what they do – it’s a part of life, imitation, emulation.  ImageThat’s a great part of the whole scheme of learning.  It’s when we classify and put it in a box and say that imitating me, or imitating this person is THE way that it has to go down – we HAVE to learn this method that has been set before us – and that’s the only way.  To me that’s when it’s a problem. But I have no problem at all with imitation.

That’s, that makes a lotta sense… I think people get confused because of the holistic approach that you have – It came out of a need FROM YOU as a professional already… it came out of a need to want more…

Ya – what happened –

– And a lot of people actually don’t WANT more, you know what I mean?…

That’s totally fine, that’s totally fine.  What ends up happening is that people try to turn my non-rules approach into RULES!  And it’s like ‘Wow this is a new method,’ but it’s NOT a new method.  That’s my whole point.  It’s whatever method you’re using is fine – there are MANY methods.  We just have to remember there are MANY methods and whatever method you use, if you stick to it, you’ll get there.  And my whole thing was

ImageI just saw things that were left out.  And when people were teaching music I looked at it and it’s not that what people are teaching is WRONG, I just understand that there’s more to it.

And I just wanted to focus on the things that I felt that WEREN’T being addressed when it came time to teaching things.  That’s about it.

So are you still finding things that are being left out?  Cause there’s a new book – you’ve said maybe THREE  in the works, you’ve got ideas…

Well ya, the new book… is gonna address Music differently.  In other words it’s not so much more now about like you know just playing music… look at the LIFE of Music… for example, record labels are disappearing, record STORES, music stores and things like that are disappearing and we’re gonna look at like how, you know, how Music is changed.

For example we don’t even – unless we go to a live concert – we don’t HEAR music in its ENTIRETY anymore.  It’s not processed the same way.  MP3’s don’t give you all of music.  And so it doesn’t enter into our whole souls and beings as well as it used to.  Just about everything we hear on the radio is pitch-corrected.  Not even hearing all the pitches.  Everything is time corrected so we’re not even hearing all the times.

We’re not hearing music we’re hearing more… processed Music  and  it’s like eating processed food – we’re  not getting all the vitamins and the enrichment that Music and food has to offer.  So I’m gonna look at that as a whole and look at what it’s doing to our SOCIETY even, you know?  With Music being pulled outta schools…  so we’re gonna look at that in a new… and hopefully interesting way.  But again we’re gonna do it through story form.  So if it disturbs people too much, they can just enjoy it as a story.  And not have to take it too seriously, just like The Music Lesson.

Well, you’re learning a lot about the industry lately.  Congratulations to the continued success with Vix Records right?

Thank you very very much, ya thank you.

Everywhere I look J.D. Blair, the Groove Regulator, is in your news feed, and… you must be really proud of both his success and your guys’ collaboration with the record company right?

Ya, VERY happy about it.  I’ve always known J.D. as a world-class innovator in Music and the way he plays drums, uh even in my book The Music Lesson, there’s a chapter on “space,” and there’s a whole part about a drummer  and J.D. was the inspiration for this drummer – who took a solo with… 99 percent space.  Which was an eye opening thing, you know, and that was taken from a real incident that happened, in the early 90’s in Nashville, Tennessee…

He played 99 percent nothing?

Absolutely, he had been grooving so hard… supporting everybody else that when it came to take his drum solo – we’re so used to drummers going so crazy – all these drum rolls – but J.D. literally stopped playing.  Literally you know?  I mean his body was still moving you could see the groove in his body and the whole audience came to a halt: the waiters and waitresses stopped what they were doing.  Everybody turned in that direction and the WHOLE ROOM was still grooving – but he wasn’t playing the drum.  Now, he was playing MUSIC – now understand this:

ImageThink about a basketball team  right? And there’s ten people on the court.  Only one person has the ball at a time but it doesn’t mean ten people aren’t playing the game.  Right? When someone is SPEAKING and they stop speaking you still listening.  If they pause for a moment it doesn’t mean they’re not talking, right?

So a lot of us forget that SPACE is not only a part of music but an IMPORTANT and necessary part of music.  And it’s a part that none of us teach and none of us practice.  And J.D. had it mastered.  He took a solo with space.  And after maybe two bars he hit one cymbal.  You know, right on the beat and he hit and it just like punched you right in the chest.  And then he sat for another few bars and after you know, whenever he was ready, he was done and he came back in with the groove.  And people flipped out.  I flipped out!  I was standing next to him on stage I’d never seen anything like it.  And I – you know, that’s what kinda drew, like drove me down this pathI was like, ‘Wait a minute-  I have to learn this, I have to explore this.’

This is a concept that you know, Miles Davis hinted at it.  Old people who don’t talk as much anymore, they understand it.  I didn’t, but I do now.

So it’s important stuff and I don’t know any of us Music teachers that teach it. So anyway, I’m very very happy to be able to produce – not produce but release – a record from, you know, what we call the “Groove Regulator” J.D. Blair.

…I wish I coulda seen that I woulda flipped out too.


So you’re learning a lot about the industry and… mixing two records at once?   So you got something new in a bunch of different places… What’s the scoop?

Ya… well, I hadn’t I hadn’t really even been talking about my own record a whole lot lately cause I want all the attention to go to J.D., but ya I’m in the midst of finishing up two projects and one of the records  is a thirteen song record that features female vocalists.  It’s mostly all female vocalists… there’s one song where there’s a female/ male duet but it’s mostly female vocals…


What happens is that when I’m recording these songs… before I have the vocals… I record the melodies on the bass, you know, or a different instrument.  And I LIKE the songs like that, I like them as instrumentals also.  And so for this record you’ll be able to… pick up the vocal record OR you’ll be able to purchase an instrumental version of the same record.  And… so you know I’ve never seen anyone do it…

I did SOMETHING like that on my Yin Yang double disc but on the Yin Yang disc there was only one song – the song “Yinin’& Yangin’” that I repeated:  you can hear that song vocally and one instrumentally but every other song was different. On this record, these two records, you’ll be able to hear most of all the songs as vocal versions or as instrumental versions… On each record there’ll be a few songs that’ll be different on each record… you know just kinda for die-hard fans.  They’ll probably want to get both records.

So you’re playing all the instruments – it’s just you?

No, it’s NOT just me.  I have a lot of… a lot of different  guests, lotta different vocalists, of course J.D. Blair… my OTHER good drummer friend Derico Watson, my brother Roy [“Futurman” Wooten] is playing drums..  I have a drummer from Atlanta that plays with his fingers sorta like my brother,  named David “Fingers” Haynes playing drums… my BROTHERS are playing different instruments…  I have a guy playing piano – I mean it’s all over the place with different guests… so you know, you’re gonna get a whole lot more than just me.

You know it must be hard not to exploit you’re kids… I know you’re so proud of their success and what they’re doing with Music… it must be hard not to… you know, bring them out and show them off everywhere you go.

Ya well they’re busy – my kids are busy in their own right.

Of course, right.  And they have their own LIVES –

Exactly exactly and you know my wife’s at home driving them everywhereMy fourteen year old daughter um, she’s playing Belle in a version of “Beauty and the Beast” right now

Oh wow.

And she’s a great singer.  I have her – She’s’ singing lead on one song and she sings partial lead on another song on the record, I’ve got all my kids singing –

– Oh really?

– My eleven year old boy – Oh ya absolutely

– Oh wow,  great

– Ya you’ll hear them a lot on the vocal record.  My eleven year old son is playing drums on one of the tracks on each record.  He’s actually playing gigs in some, in some clubs now… which is maybe what you saw –  I think I posted a picture of him playing when Prince’s ex-guitar player Dez Dickerson got up and sat in –

– Ya

–  I was like, ‘Wow!  I’ve never even met Dez and here I am watching my eleven year old boy play drums with him…’And you know, my eight year old daughter – you’ll hear her singing on two of the songs.  My seven year old boy, you’ll hear him on a couple of the tracks, my wife, lots of family members, you know?  I use what’s right around me you know?  To make it happen.

If they weren’t recording with you they might never see you right?

HAHAhahahHA, well we’re, we’re working on that…

You’ve  learned so much about the industry and what’s right and wrong about it…  Have you been bothered by all the taping and cell phones in the crowd?  Is that an acceptable way to be living in the moment and be ABSORBING Music?

ImageYa I mean a lot of it DOES bother me and I… I have to… I guess learn to cope with it because I don’t see it changing I don’t see it going away.  I used to try, at all my concerts…  I put up signs and I would just see the videos online THAT NIGHT with the signs edited out, you knowI just realize people are going to do it everyone’s got their phones out, but what I do is I see people not even watching the show.  They’re just videoing….

And they’re watching through the SCREEN

Ya which is to me kinda, kinda crazy… cause it’s almost… I don’t know it’s just, IN A SENSE, ‘one way to look at it’ I’ll put it, ONE WAY to look at it is that they’re robbing our livelihood.  Image

They’re taking our livelihood that we are SELLING and trying to make a living off of and they’re they’re giving it away for free.  You know and so I’ve heard some people say literally taking food out of my kids mouth.Um, you know, the good part of it is, is that I have fans all on the other side of the world because they’re online able to watch my videos…. The only thing is that why not allow ME to put the videos online that I want up there?

…I  know one artist Prince, I mean he fights hard.  He takes EVERYTHING possible off YouTube.  So if you want to see him you have to come to him.  You have to go to his concert.  You know he fights hard and there are other artists like him.

And I understand it.  But you know I don’t have the means or the time to fight that fight.   But I do want people to understand what they’re doing… At a lot of my workshops, when people come to video my workshop – that’s usually a smaller crowd, and I and I can usually have a little more control over that but I still see people sneaking videos.

Now when I was younger with my brothers, if we were ABLE to go to a concert or go to a workshop – which was RARE – you know ,if we were able to video it was to go home and study it and LEARN from it.  I mean we

were better musicians because of it. I mean my brothers and I and friends we’d get around the TV and watch the VHS that we made and literally study it and rewind it over and over again to get better and we’d practice from it.  But it seems like nowadays people video just to get it on YouTube and count the number of hits that they get.  And it’s like they’re cool if you get hits.

But I think you’re cool if you learn from it… Imageif you take what I’m offering and get better from it.  But not just to get hits.  You know if people were doing that I really wouldn’t mind the videoing as much.  But you know I have I know people who are like, you know, building websites just to show other people’s work.  And you know and they’re trying to get money from it.  And to me that’s just kinda like highway robbery.  And I DO have a problem with that.

So when you say that you’re learning to cope with it and… it’s not… in your deck of cards to be able to deal with it – when you say COPE are you just trying to ignore it?  Are you just trying to pretend it’s not there?

Well, no.  NO.  No definitely not ignore it.  But learn how to UTILIZE it…. How do I benefit from it?  How can I USE it?  You know … There are, there must be a way – this is a technology that’s not going awaySo it can’t be ALL bad.  So how can I benefit from it?  How can I give the people… something that they CAN get?  You know?  Something that’s from me.  How can I benefit?  If I have this direct link with people around the world I should be able to use it to my benefit the way other people are…So I have to figure it out basically.  Not IGNORE but figure it out.

I wonder if maybe each hit could contribute to some charity… that would be crazy good.

That would be incredibleThat would be incredible if someone could figure something out like that, ya.

Could you talk a little bit about um, the 2010 program in India…the Academy of Music in 2010 –you built a program there – a contemporary music  program – rock, jazz,

Uh ya, well I did NOT build that program –

Oh wait you were FUNDRAISING for it

– RIGHT, exactlyI was part of a music event happening in India – in about four or five cities in India – that was raising awareness and MONEY for the opening of that school… A good friend of mine – a great Indian guitarist, who lives partially there and partially in BOSTON, his name is Prassana Ramaswami, he is a great…  guitarist and mixes jazz, fusion with INDIAN Music.  And uh, he’s a AMAZING.  So I got to go over to India a couple years ago for my first trip there and play with him and a couple of AMAZING, UNBELIEVABLE Indian percussionists.

You know anybody that wants to learn, just RIDICULOUS rhythms and rhythm techniques and different ways of thinking about rhythm, they should study Indian percussion.  Tabla, and Ghatam and all these different percussion instruments from there.  So ya, that’s a great school that people can check out in India.  They can go to India and actually study and learn great music.

But to… say this again it is NOT a music program that I created.  I was just fortunate enough to be able to help raise awareness and money for it for the program.

Right.  Got it.  And your books are being used… a little bit in schools: required reading.  Are people changing the curriculum anywhere?

Well, I wouldn’t say CHANGING the curriculum but adding to it.  Because again in my mind there’s nothing that needs to be totally done away with but we need to broaden it.  And so ya, there are people that are broadening their musical approaches.  You know and I’m very very happy about that.

You know I even, my brother uh Roy, the drummer, was talking to a man who had written a book about music and it was about to come out you know and his daughter – his young daughter  came up to him – and said, ‘Hey daddy , you need to check out this guy, you need to read this book.’  And not only do I have this book the Music Lesson but there’s this video – and instructional video [Groove Workshop DVD] Imageand I think it’s like five hours long or something, where me and another guy Anthony Wellington, we took the whole book and took each chapter and pretty much did a workshop with about six bass players, and went through each chapter of the book and did the exercises… and played it and it was all done live.  Not prepared, preplanned with these musicians.  And people get to see this in action.  But anyway this man who had written this book he just said he had to pull his book and re-write it after, you know, being introduced to this OTHER way – ADDITIONAL ways of looking at music….

Music is BROADER than most of us are teaching it.  ImageAnd because of it, most of us that are approaching learning Music, you know, we think  that it has to be done through this narrow passage way.  But you know a kid that’s playing air-guitar and doesn’t even OWN an instrument – who’s to say they’re playing wrong?  You know they’re playing from the HEART and that is the right way.  And we can do that on the first day.  It may take you a while to get good at the INSTRUMENT but to be good at music can be done the first day.  And that’s the thing us teachers aren’t addressing.

So you’ve got a lot of people thinking a different way, and… like I said, if I could speak for all those people I’d just like to say ‘thanks man.’

I appreciate that.  I appreciate people accepting uh, you know, what I have to say.  And even those that DON’T, I know that it’s made them think.  And that’s really the purpose you know, is, is to get people THINKING about music in a broader way.  And so I appreciate EVERYONE for accepting – or not accepting – what I have to say.

Cool… the show coming to St. Louis – you’ve got the original lineup [pianist and harmonica-player Howard Levy re-joins the band after co-founding the band in 1988 and subsequently leaving in 1993]… are you guys are touring… on Rocket Science [2011 Bela Fleck & the Flecktones release], or is it gonna be an awesome mix of everything?

Aw ya, it’s gonna be an awesome mix of everything.  I like how you said that.

Do you feel like you have to play the Grammy Award winning instrumental  in eleven -eight [time signature] “Life In Eleven?”

We don’t feel like we HAVE to but we have been playing that one almost every night.  That’s one that’s just kinda fun to play and… not because it won a Grammy but because we just love the song but that’s one that we’ve played almost every show.  So I can ALMOST guarantee that we’ll play that one.

By the way were you AT the award ceremony itself?

I was not, no.

Ok who represented-

I hadn’t been in a few years… You know um, I don’t know.  I know that Howard Levy was NOT there, because, the award was for best instrumental  composition and it was a song that Howard and Bela wrote… but I don’t know if Bela was there either I don’t know.You know and those awards a lot of the times the, you know, some of the  best awards happen before the televised portion.  So they only televise the POPULAR awards.  But, like, a lot of the jazz awards and things like that, they happen before the thing goes on the air.  So not everybody’s always there for that… And I definitely wasn’t there this year.

Victor Wooten, the Bass Whisperer, thank you once again for all that you’ve done and spending time with me… St. Louis really looks forward to your performance tomorrow night

HAHA, I appreciate it.

Author: aarondoerr

Owner of Fellow Musician LLC, a small music education business specializing in outreach and private study. I'm guitarist for musical theatre and production assistant at St. Louis Public Radio.

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