Victor Wooten’s Music and Nature Camps

In addition to being one of the premier bass players of his time, most widely known as a member of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, Grammy winning bassist Victor Wooten also runs a successful music camp in Only, Tennessee. Wooten’s Center for Music and Nature at Wooten Woods Retreat originally focused on teaching music to bass players. Now in its 15th year, it has accommodated all instruments—voice, horns, keyboards, and more—for at least the last six years or so.
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Wooten’s camps are unique in their philosophy and how they develop and teach music curriculum. Heavily influenced by the book The Tracker (Berkley Books, 1986) by Tom Brown, Jr., Wooten spent nearly 10 years studying under Brown and other instructors, learning the ancient art of tracking, awareness, and survival.

In his studies, Wooten found a common thread between music and nature and began borrowing and adapting the skills, techniques, and philosophies from his teachers. “If you’re trying to become natural at something what’s the most natural thing on the planet?” he asks. “Nature. You don’t have to teach a tree how to grow. A flower will go towards the sun; a bird will sing just because the sun comes up and it didn’t have to go to a conservatory to learn how to do it. A squirrel is born knowing how to build a nest. So why not make the most natural thing in the world our classroom?” The foundation of Wooten’s teaching curriculum combines practices based on this ideology with how he initially learned music—from his four older brothers (Regi, Roy, Rudy, and Joseph Wooten, all of whom are musicians). They began teaching Victor to play the bass when he was merely two years old.

Two Through 10

One of the first classes Wooten teaches at camp, regardless of instrument, age, or ability, is called “Two Through 10.” His book, The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music (Berkley Trade, 2008), which is a novel, rather than a “Victor Wooten how-to,” is based upon this concept. “We separate music into 10 equal parts,” he explains. “I have a way of showing the class that notes are only one part of music, but it’s probably 95% of what we think about.”

In “Two Through 10” Wooten helps his students discover nine other musical elements he considers equally important. It’s called “Two Through 10” because he gives number one to notes simply by default, not matter of importance.

“I set up a two-chord progression, along with another musician, and ask the students to play along. We never tell them what key we’re in, so first they have to search for the key,” he says, explaining that most people can’t even play until they find the key, which is a problem in and of itself.  “Once they find the key and start doing their thing, we change the key. And all of a sudden the students have to stop playing and start searching again.” When the students find the key again, it changes again. So most people can’t even play because the keys keep changing.

“So, when we stop I ask, ‘What is the first thing you start thinking about when it comes time to play?’ And most people say, ‘I want to know what key it’s in,’” says Wooten, adding that most of the time, we get rhythm section instruments at camp: bass, guitar, drums, and keys. “I ask them, ‘How come you’re thinking about notes first? You’re acting like you’re in the note section and not the rhythm section,’” says Wooten.

The lesson imparted is profoundly simple. “It’s a way of pointing out that most of their thinking centers around one thing: notes,” he says. The emphasis is to reorient the students’ thinking about what didn’t change. Musical elements like rhythm, groove, and tempo remain the same throughout the exercise, but because the students are mostly obsessed about getting one element right, all of the other components fall apart. “They let notes take over everything, when they could’ve played the appropriate rhythm,” Wooten clarifies. Through this exercise he has the students come up with nine other equally important parts of music, hence the title “Two Through 10.”

Seven Notes

To further deconstruct players’ obsession with notes, Wooten takes it a step further. “There are only 12 notes, period,” he states. “And seven of the notes are in every key we’re in. So, instead of obsessing over the right note, if you simply guess which note

to hit, you’ll be in the right key more than half the time.”

The question he poses to his students is this: What would happen if you guessed which key we were in? What if (instead of asking) you used your ear, did it in time, did it in the groove of what the song was telling you? “If it’s swing, swing,” he stresses. “If it’s funky, play funky rhythms. Just guess what key we’re in, listen to the note in relation to the chords, and let that note tell you where the root is—maybe it’s only three notes away.”

The problem with most contemporary teaching, he says, is that most people are only trained to find the root note. “Out of the 12 notes we’re trained to listen for one. So I let them know that they are having trouble playing because they are only relying on one of many things they could be using.” The exercise attempts to demonstrate that, if they do play a note that sounds out of key, they can simply slide it over one note in either direction and they’ll be on a note that sounds good. “You’re never more than a half step away from a right note,” he says. “It keeps them from being afraid of being wrong. And if they are wrong, it’s only the note, not everything else. The music doesn’t have to stop.”

Victor Wooten

 

Nature: Music as Language

Another strategy Wooten deploys at his camps is to consider what it means to be natural at something. “Let’s say you see a person who is really good at something—what do we call that person?” he asks. “We call them a natural. We say she/he is a natural. What is a natural? If you look it up in the dictionary it means being like nature—having the characteristics of nature. So regardless of what we’re learning to do, whether it’s walking, talking, or being a good musician, we are trying to become natural at it.” The problem with how most people learn music, according to Wooten, is that musicians are told to lock themselves in a room, like the proverbial woodshed, and practice for hours to become natural.

“It doesn’t work,” he stresses. “You learn skills in the practice room, but to become a natural, you have to leave the practice room.” And that’s why musicians are told that, after they practice for years, they have to then go pay their dues. “What that’s secretly saying, whether we realize it or not, is you have to go out into the world and learn to become natural again. It would be the same as trying to learn to speak a language sitting in a room by yourself and practicing. And we know that doesn’t work. If a teacher teaches you a new word in English class she has you use it immediately. She says, ‘Now use it in sentence.’ She doesn’t tell you to practice it over and over.”

The Right Process

Furthering this motif, Wooten explains that we are able to acquire and develop language skills at such a young age because of the process through which it is learned. “Students come to camp to learn to play. They don’t come to learn scales,” he says. “Scales are in a book. How to play is not. You can go to a music store, blindfold yourself, throw a dart, and it’ll hit a music book with scales. But, how do you put all of that together? That’s what students want to know. And that’s the mistake that all of us teachers make. And I’m not pointing fingers; I’m including myself. Many of us make the mistake of teaching our students rules and things to practice when what they want is to play.” Wooten wants his students playing right away, the same way a good Spanish teacher, will be speaking Spanish to you the first day. “If you walk into the class she’s not going to say ‘Hello.’ She’s going to say ‘Hola.’”

Wooten’s music/language connection basically boils down to the following question: How can a baby learn English and speak clearly after a couple of years, while it can take someone 20 years to learn to play music? “English is the tougher one,” he says. “But it’s the process of learning it that is the key.” Wooten’s whole process for learning music is to treat it like a language. “You’d be shocked at how well it translates into learning music. We learn language in a natural way. We use a natural process. For example, no one sits you down and says: ‘Here are the things to say, now go sit in a corner and practice.’ What do parents do? They just talk to you. And when you make a mistake as a baby, no one tells you you’re wrong. As a baby, you don’t know when you’ve made a mistake because you don’t even know you’re making a mistake.”

And bringing that back to your instrument, when you’re learning to talk, the most important thing is communication. “How you are communicating, not what you’re saying. We just want to know that babies are communicating fully and honestly regardless of the words they’re using. It’s not about the instrument; it’s not about the word. But in music, we put the instrument and the notes first. You don’t even get to play until you learn the instrument. You have to learn the names of the notes, the names of the strings. It’s like trying to teach a kid to spell before they can talk.”

Wooten says he was told, but can’t verify, that 98% of people who start music classes end up quitting. “Who quits learning English?” he asks. “No one does, because the process is right. You’re not corrected until you’ve been speaking for four or five years. The most profound things in life are simple. That’s why the players who come to my camp become much better instantly. It doesn’t take years. This stuff is right in front of them and they can access it right away. In my first class I’m not giving them new information. I’m giving them new ways of looking at old information.”

Wooten Woods Retreat is a 147-acre, riverfront property. Courses, or camps as Wooten likes to refer to them, run from March through October, and range from Jam Weekends to a three-day music theory programs to three-week residencies (July/Aug), and more. For comprehensive
details on Victor Wooten’s Center for Music and Nature at Wooten Woods Retreat visit: www.vixcamps.com.

 

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