Victor Wooten on Learning Music

Victor’s Forthcoming Book

I heard an interview on NPR the other day and found Victor’s views on music education incredibly interesting(and he has a book available now!  I just ordered my copy!).  I still can’t find the audio, but I found this text from:

Bass Musician Magazine

Jake /Kot (Editor)/: In my interview with Alain Caron, he had very similar things to say about his playing being a language of its own, right down to comparing syllables to phrasing.
Victor: Right! You can move people with this language. The difference is that it’s rare that I’ve ever met a musician that actually treats music like our first language, English. We agree that’s it’s a language, but for some reason we treat music totally differently. Most of the time when it comes to learning music, I would go as far to say that we go about it backwards, in reverse. I’m not saying that any approach is wrong, that’s not my point. Realizing that English, and I only say that because it’s my first language, and music are both forms of communication, it’s easy for me to see that I’m still much better and more comfortable with English even though I’ve been playing for a very long time. So when I look at the approach that we use to learn and speak, and even teach English, and compare it to the usual approach we take to learn music, I realize, wow, it’s a drastically different approach, to the point where I say that we’re learning music backwards. Let me explain what I mean by that.

Lets say that I have a child that I think wants to play piano. My first thought is going to be who can I send her to for lessons—nothing wrong with that. But if I take that same approach—if I have a child that wants to speak English, for me to think, ok, who can I send them to for lessons is an odd thought. We just surround the kid with people speaking that language. We talk to the child and allow them to talk back, uninhibited. They can say whatever they want, and we hardly teach them anything for the first few years, and what I mean by ‘teach’ is teaching in the classic sense of the word as in sitting them down and giving them instructions. We don’t do that for the first 3 or 4 years at least. We let the child fend for itself. We more or less throw them in the deep water when it comes to speaking English. They have to figure it out themselves. I recognize a few key factors when I look at what allows us to get good at speaking English quickly, really quickly. I want to present these factors because as far as learning music goes, we seem to be looking at what, 15 or 20 years to obtain that same skill level communicating on our instrument.

One important element is realizing that basically, we don’t teach the kids anything. That’s a key one, and what I mean by that is when you teach someone, lets say music, the first day of lessons a child, or I should say person, learns what’s right and what’s wrong as far as our approach and how to do things. That immediately cuts part of our creativity off. The fact is that nobody wants to be wrong, especially a child. They do not want to be wrong. So in essence, it cuts part of our freedom of expression off. We are immediately afraid to really express with our instrument because of the fact that we might be wrong. And if we’re wrong, the teacher will let us know immediately, and we tend not to feel good about that. Where with English, as a child, for quite a few years you’re rarely if ever told that you’re wrong. You’re just allowed to say and express totally how you choose, with your own voice and your own choice of words, or even sounds. The interesting thing is that if you do it wrong, enough, you’re not told that you’re wrong; you’re made to feel good about it until you get it right. So with that kind of freedom, the freedom to explore without being shut down, you learn quickly. By the time you are 2 or 3 at the most, you’re freely improvising, putting it together your own way, right or wrong, and everyone gets it. In music, we don’t have that as a general rule.

Now, here are a couple of other examples. In English, basically, we’re allowed to, and almost forced to jam with other people immediately, from day one. You’re actually encouraged to jam with other people. I’m using musical terms now as far as “jamming” goes. You’re just communicating, freelancing—free expression with other people. When you think about it, the people that you’re jamming with are already pros; they are professionals in this language. They understand their instrument, that being English. We’re encouraged to jam as a baby. As a very beginner, you’re jamming with professionals. That’s an amazing thing right there that we don’t provide in music. You’re told you’re a beginner from day one, and you have to stay there for quite a few years, and then you’re allowed to advance to the next level. After you actually get good, where you’re good enough where someone’s not going to teach you anymore, we send you out to pay dues. You have to go out there and learn the ropes—we don’t do that in English. The similarity between the two languages is that we are surrounded by both of them at all times when we are learning. There is never a time when you are not surrounded by music, music plays everywhere. Even when it is not playing, the silence, the space “is” a part of music. You learn to understand what silence does with English, and silence as being a part of music, so that’s why I say you’re surrounded by music all the time.

So that’s a commonality between the two languages. But that’s not the factor that makes it different, that makes us learn one of them quickly, and one of them slowly. So here’s the thing—-everybody learns English quickly. If you’re not speaking good English by 3, we know there is a problem. There is some kind of misfiring or misconnection in your brain. So not being a pro by lets say 4 or 5, not being a professional like us in English indicates that there’s something physically wrong with your brain, and that’s not the exception, that’s the norm. We expect you to be like us by 5. Now in music, it’s the exception that lets say by 10, if you’re really great, and sound almost like a professional, maybe not quite a professional, but close, you’re considered a prodigy, or a genius. So that’s the exception, and again, totally backwards. But here’s the guarantee, here’s something I can promise you 100% of the time—-if you find a child prodigy, you’re guaranteed that someone else in that household is doing the same thing. Someone else is playing that same instrument, or something close to it. So that means if we treat music like a language, and surround the kid with it, allowing him or her to jam with the pros, allowing them to freely express, uninhibited, they become a child prodigy. They pick up this language as quickly as they do English, and that’s how I learned it. I was learning English and music at the exact same time, in the exact same way, and that lets me know that our approach to English does work in music, and you can learn it just as quickly.


 We, the teachers, are just a signpost, another piece of direction on your path. If your driving down the road, you don’t stop at the sign, the sign is just pointing you where you want to go, and a good teacher knows that you’re headed somewhere, and a good teacher will make it not about him right away. This is what the book is about. The teacher is strange—questionable. He answers most of your questions with a question to get you to answer your question yourself, so you can’t rely on him.

5 thoughts on “Victor Wooten on Learning Music

  1. “So that means if we treat music like a language, and surround the kid with it, allowing him or her to jam with the pros, allowing them to freely express, uninhibited, they become a child prodigy. They pick up this language as quickly as they do English”

    It’s really about communication in the end. And, the funny thing is that communication is the natural first step. If you sit a kid down at the piano and just let him/her start making noises with it, pretty soon they are trying to make a happy noise, an angry noise, a loud noise, a soft noise.

    For some reason, the progression of education begins with concepts of discipline. Discipline isn’t a big factor in raw communication.

  2. I’ve been giving a few lessons here and there, it’s been a little slow starting up though. My “studio” down Joe Bald road is a pretty good drive from anywhere so gas prices may be a factor.

  3. Back when dinosaurs walked the earth…(i.e., when I was in retail)…

    We used to do a “first lesson is free” promo with every guitar sold to a beginning (or intermediate) player; the store would pay $5 to the teacher for the first lesson plus 10% commission on any accessories sold during the time the student was taking lessons. We never charged rent for teaching space ’cause it was so good for business.

    Of course, you might get a webcam and explore some “distance learning” possibilities… –you never know!

  4. “the store would pay $5 to the teacher for the first lesson plus 10% commission on any accessories sold during the time the student was taking lessons. We never charged rent for teaching space ’cause it was so good for business.”
    I’d go for a deal like that one in a heartbeat, J.
    Back when those same dinosaurs walked the earth (very possibly before), I gave lessons 5 nights a week at a retail music store. $8.00 a lesson and the store took half-no commission and my students bought tons of stuff. At one point I had 55 individual students per week.
    Right now, my location is a definite hindrance.
    The webcam idea has crossed my mind and I may look into that a little further. I like the idea of using the technology but, with anything that requires any type of technical production, even a simple one to one situation; the production part has to be working smoothly before taking it to market, in my mind. That would include everything from levels to network connections to money exchange. I would need to feel confident with all of that and I haven’t got all of it sussed out in my mind yet.

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