The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music by Victor L. Wooten (Berkley Books, 2006) 273 pages.
I spent the last day of 2015 in Bisbee, Arizona, an old copper mining town, with my wife, her sister, and her husband. We stayed at the El Dorado Suites on OK Street (it was OK…no, I’m kidding: it was a beautiful suite for a very modest amount). I told the clerk I liked to visit book stores. “Oh,” she said, “You have to visit the new place across the street at the Copper Queen Plaza…they have music and art supplies too.” So we found ourselves at Bisbee Books and Music (www.bisbeebam.com), the only bookstore I have ever seen with mandolins and another odd stringed instrument (whose name I have forgotten) on display along with the books.
We were lucky enough to be there with a couple from Lake Havasu City while the man played some tunes on both while I browsed the books and my wife the art teacher looked at the art supplies. It reminded me of watching the Led Zeppelin video where Jimmy Page plays the mandolin opening to “The Battle of Evermore” at the gates of the big estate house where they recorded their fourth album. I mean, that’s what it sounded like he was playing. The music filled the store, and I was a bit surprised that the place didn’t fill up with spectators. But music, once only experienced live and in person, has become so ubiquitous and bland, that the other people in the mall simply ignored it.
Bisbee is a town, like many in the United States today, that were founded and thrived for a reason—a huge copper mine in this case—that no longer exists. You can take a tour of the old mine, and the Copper Queen Hotel holds ghost tours, but the population, once 20,000 strong, has fallen to about 5,000. The stores along the main street, which once supplied groceries and shoes and clothes (one was a J C Penney), now harbor an enthusiastic if struggling arts community. It’s a subject these essays explored in Population Wars. However, crowded upstate NY is a lot more promising, even under duress, than a small town in the isolated southwest. One of my rules of life is “When Things Change, They Don’t Change Back.”
But this is not about Bisbee, although if you ever find yourself south of Tombstone and north of Mexico, you should stop by the little bookstore. This is about the book I bought there (one of eight) because it seemed appropriate to buy a book about music in that particular store at that particular time.
I knew the Flecktones’ Victor Wooten, the four-time Grammy winner from Nashville and three-time bass Player of the Year, because of a video about “Making Music” he made in about 2000 with a drummer named Carter Beauford. I liked it because it showed the give-and-take among the musicians (Bela Fleck and others join them later) as they put notes and phrases and grooves together to make a song.
I do not have a musical bone in my body. That’s my wife’s domain (her mother and sisters all played saxophone, and my wife went on a musical tour to Europe in her teens). My mother played clarinet in her high school marching band, but the closest I ever got to a band was as a cymbal player in the same band 25 years later. At least I wasn’t ever off-key.
But, growing up, I always wanted to make noise, preferably drums. I had to live through the Beatles years of garage bands on every block in horrid silence (mainly, I suspect, due in equal parts to my father’s salary and my mother’s nerves). I could never play by ear, and to this day I can only peck out one song, the Marine Corps Hymn, not by reading the music, but by numbers, usually in the key of C:
1-3-5-5-5-5-5-8-5, 3-4-5-5-4-2-1…and so on through 8-7-6-4-6-8-5-3-5, 8-7-6-4-6-8-5….
The first thing I did when I met my wife and we moved in together was to buy a set of drums to pound on. I was terrible, and remain so, but it felt so good. And when I finally abandoned the video lessons and bang-kick-bang-kick-1-2-3 patterns that beginners have to endure and just let myself flail away along with any basic rock track, I found that there was music inside me after all (and it didn’t sound half bad, at least to me).
And that’s what Wooten’s book is really about: how to let the music that dwells in all of us, as human beings, out. And you can’t really do it well unless you make music as a group, as a community. It all began, Wooten suggests (p. 236), with the whole community sitting around at night listening to the sounds of nature: bull frogs, birds, insects, and so on. It makes us human: you can’t get a chimp or ape to clap or tap a foot along to the beat, but you can hardly stop a person from doing it, especially with live music on tap.
This book is more of a novel that a memoir or manual, but it does address the relationship of music makers to what they are doing, which is to give a soundtrack to our existence. I don’t care if you’re into rock or country or jazz or something else. As Wooten points out, if not in so many words, there’s really only good music and bad music. Musicians all know this, if not their listeners. When people say, for example, “I hate bluegrass,” they really mean that they lack the perception to appreciate it (page 56). (One intriguing thing I read somewhere is that our musical tastes “freeze” in place shortly after puberty and that if we are only exposed to, say, hip-hop or 1964-style Beatles “Mersey beat” music at that critical time, we get locked in and cannot change our musical appreciation style. I would hate to think this is true, and Wooten seems to think it cannot be so.)
Wooten divides the musical experience up into ten categories. Then, through a series of mythical/fictional characters like Uncle Clyde and Sam and Michael (who might be Victor himself), Wooten explores how each of them contribute to the overall expression of music. Why these ten? Well, as Wooten points out on page 40, these aren’t the only aspects of music that can be examined or explained. As people grow, they can change. But these seem to be a good place to start.
- Notes (page 35): The Western octave consists of 7 tones (the white keys on a piano) and 5 more “in-between” ones (the black keys), so even if you are off when you play a note, you probably aren’t that far off. The fear of playing the “wrong” note, Wooten says, is the main reason many people cannot play the music inside them (page 43).
- Articulation (page 51): This is the duration of the note, and how it is attacked and played. He compares this to colors in art (page 69).
- Technique (page 75): You practice controlling your instrument. But musicians have to know when to reduce their technique (p. 95).
- Emotion or Feel (page 97): This is why blues is different than jazz. It gives soul its power. It’s why the president asked James Brown to calm people down after Martin Luther King Jr,’s death in 1968 (p.106).
- Dynamics (page 117): This is how hands interact with the instrument. How you can “pedal” (repeat) a note on bass and still make it speak (p.138).
- Rhythm and Tempo (page 145): Describes how drummers can play one beat every four measures and still stay right in time…it’s all inside you (p.156).
- Tone (page 161): He describes this as a kind of dialect. Know what I’se sayin’? (p. 162 and 180).
- Phrasing (page 179): A group of notes make up a phrase. What you say is your truth (p.192).
- Space and Rest (page 195): It’s the notes and the silence between that make music (p.221).
- Listening (page 235): In the end, making music requires us to listen to other music makers. Even the deaf can dance as they feel the vibrations of the floor and the air (p. 240).
Got it? Good…I’m going to bang on my drums now…