Notes on The Music Lesson

Bill Hart-Davidson
Aug 22 · 17 min read
Cover image from Victor Wooten’s book The Music Lesson

One of my assignments for music camp is to read Victor Wooten’s book The Music Lesson. The book is presented as an extended parable. A central character named Michael is Victor’s teacher and each chapter focuses on a key takeaway that Michael shows or, perhaps more accurately, creates the opportunity for Victor to discover.

I’ll try to briefly summarize these here so I can remember and return to them. I think they are guideposts for practice in that they help to center the learner/player on what is important about a given session of playing. For each chapter, I’ll do a summary, my interpretation or takeaway, and then a thought or two about applying the lesson in my own practice.

Prologue/Overarching Concept: Music is a Language

The introduction and first lesson chapter revisit a theme that Victor is widely known for espousing, which is the idea that music is a language and it should be learned like one: immersively, with learners having the chance to explore, interact with fluent language users, and to “jam”…that is to learn to listen to the conversation around them and to find a way to fit in. This isn’t free play with no structure like noodling alone in the bedroom, nor is it endlessly running scales from a book. It is hearing what is going on around you as a set of invitations, questions, exclamations, and then finding your own language to contribute that, in turn, draws a response from others and continues the conversation.

Chapter 1: Groove

First find the groove, don’t worry about finding the right notes. A groove is something you feel as much as something you hear. And you don’t need pitch to have groove (drummers, you know…). So feel the groove, play the groove, and don’t stop the groove because you are searching for the key or the next note in a phrase.

Interpreting this lesson: playing in time, with feel, is foundational. Especially for the bass player. One note is enough. Heck, one note might be too much sometimes. So don’t be ashamed to just be in the groove and to be the heartbeat. Without it, the music stops.

Spoiler Alert: For those of us who’ve been to camp, Groove has another shorthand: 2–10. Everything but notes. :)

Applying this lesson: Playing the right notes isn’t the best way to learn music, at least not at first. The bass part someone else played is what felt right in the groove. Finding that can be one path to find. But play your own path too. And start simple. Just with the root notes so you can get the feel of it. And go from there. When I do this, I often find that I can make my way to the part I hear on a record and, many times, I see a way to play it on the neck that makes way more sense than what I originally try if I start by looking at tab or standard notation.

Chapter 2: Notes

In this chapter, Michael and Victor present ten elements of music: notes, articulation, technique, feel, dynamics, rhythm, phrasing, tone, space, and listening. There are three main messages in the chapter. First, is that notes are overemphasized in most music training. It isn’t that they aren’t important, but that the other elements of music are equally important and, too often, go unfocused on. The second message is that notes are something that many players fear because of the possibility of playing the “wrong” one. Getting over this fear, which like most fears is not entirely rational, involves recognizing that in any given key there are 7 right notes and only 5 “wrong” ones and in all situations you are only ever a half step away from a “right” note if you play a wrong one. The third message is about how to get past your fear of playing the wrong notes, or maybe more generally, how to get comfortable making mistakes. The answer? Practice them. Do things that make you make mistakes and learn to get comfortable recovering and, even, going where a random note choice might take you.

Interpreting this lesson: The beginning of the chapter continues a key theme from the chapter on groove, that notes get all the attention while groove — the foundation — is underappreciated. So are the other things on the list of ten elements. To illustrate this, Michael has Victor play a two-chord progression on the guitar while he plays a chromatic scale. Using the other ten elements, he makes it sound good. The exercise of making random note choices that comes later in the chapter is one that helps Victor get more comfortable with mistakes. The aim is not to eliminate them, but rather to get over our fear of making them (which can stop the music).

Applying this lesson: Two obvious ways are to do the exercises that Michael asks Victor to do. The first is to play an “out” note and then move one half step higher or lower to see how you can bring a mistake under control. If you repeat a pattern of this enough times, Victor notices, it starts to sound purposeful so that even the wrong note sounds right. The second exercise is the random note exercise. The goal of that one is simply to get you listening to what a single note can do, and to allow you to feel less fear of mistakes in your playing.

Chapter 3: Articulation/Duration

This chapter once again starts with a connection to the previous chapter, wherein we are reminded to go easy on judgement about right and wrong and instead be open to the way we understand what can go together — what is connected — might be a matter of adding other elements in, changing something like the octave rather than the note value. Broadly speaking: shifting our perspective.

And with at as a kind of preface, Michael takes Victor on an excursion to the woods where he does just that: change his perspective. The book’s parable structure and analogical way of revealing truths about music are strong in this chapter. The message on the whole is that music patterns can be followed, traced back to learn something about who made them and why. The “why,” we learn, is the groove. And the other big decisions — like where the mounds that Victor and Michael explore were built by Native people long ago — follow from the why.

Interpreting this lesson: Music is about choices. Learning to appreciate the choices others make requires that we linger long enough, listening, to discover why. When we do, we may not only learn how to play a particular tune but also something about the person who made it, who wrote or played it. Victor notes that he can hear, in the playing of a person, what that person is feeling: happy, sad, nervous, etc. Music is information and feedback if we will listen carefully to it. And when we do, we need not judge it to be good or bad, or to like or not like it…if we do that, Michael says, we are usually saying something about ourselves rather than the music itself.

Applying this lesson: The takeaway here is to develop a listening practice and to try to understand the choices someone is making as a function of who they are, or perhaps who they were at the moment the music is made. An exercise Michael asks Victor to do is to “breathe” along with a track by Bill Monroe to better appreciate each note. Each one has a whole world inside it, he says. Victor realizes that slowing down this way causes him to pay a kind of attention to the music that he doesn’t typically summon…and that this, in turn, means he’s learning the song. I get what he means. You can’t play a song on your instrument that you can’t play in your head. And the only way to get it in your head is to listen. I’ve found this to be true even when you are writing music…

Chapter 4: Technique

In this brief chapter, Victor and Michael make a fire and explore what it means to develop technique. Michael helps Victor to see that concentration is an action that closes the mind to all but some information and that, if taken to an extreme, this can be detrimental to learning. The alternative is to practice “not concentrating” too. There are some callbacks to core ideas in Victor’s “Music is a Language” talk here too, such as a reminder about how we learn language, what kinds of discovery provide inspiration and motivation to keep going, and what *not* to do or do too much of.

Interpreting this lesson: The core idea of this chapter is to find a balance — or perhaps more accurately a productive imbalance, between focus and un-concentrated repetition. The latter is what develops fluency and keeps technique within a musical context. The former can lead to bad outcomes, waste time, or take the learner where she doesn’t want to go. The interesting thing about this insight is that something that can be synonymous with “practicing” — the concept of “woodshedding” or locking oneself away, alone where nobody can hear your mistakes, — falls under negative scrutiny. The better way to learn is with others, as we saw in previous chapters, and within the social context of music.

Applying this Lesson: The most obvious takeaway here is to find ways to practice technique when your mind is not exclusively focused on it, so you can call on these subconscious motor skills without thinking too hard about them (and so that your mind can be focused on making musical choices, at a higher level of abstraction). To do this, you need to invest a little time to getting the precise movements down (focus) and then move away from that to the less focused repetition in the unconcentrated phase.

This lesson tracks with my own experience quite well. And in fact, I’ve written some stuff about this too! We’ll hopefully see that come out this year.

Chapter 5: Emotion/Feel

The title of this chapter contains the primary message: when folks talk about “feel” they mean “feeling” or the ability to invoke and evoke emotion through music. Michael engages Victor in a number of examples that illustrate how communication with emotion can be powerful, with appropriate caveats. He asks Victor to find a rock by making a connection to it, by pouring his emotion into it. Victor is surprised that he’s able to, discovering that when you do something with intention and emotion your physical senses are heightened.

Interpreting this Lesson: This is somewhat familiar territory for me, I think, because it covers areas we might otherwise call rhetoric. Victor and Michael talk about music as communication that is capable of having emotional appeal. Michael even offers the insight that musicians, unlike others who address the public such as politicians or scientists, need not appeal to reason. They don’t need to be believed to be understood. Music can move others without that kind of persuasive apparatus, and this is what makes it powerful (and also what can make it dangerous, even destructive to musicians themselves).

Applying this Lesson: I’m going to need to work on this one. But I think it is a matter of being conscious of one’s own emotional state, playing intentionally, and doing that with (and not just for or near an audience. The bigger takeaways here might be more for folks looking to make music their career than someone like me.

Chapter 6: Dynamics

Michael & Victor get to play a gig together in this chapter where the key message is that changing levels of intensity — not only volume — is what dynamics is all about. Since music is vibration, “wiggly air” as bass player Adam Neely likes to call it, you can feel it. Michael re-minds (this kind of wordplay is also charateristic of Michael’s yoda-like demenaor) Victor that you can feel sound vibrating by having him put his hand up against a speaker and by having him practice feeling for a particular freuqency — from a metronome — in a noisy space. Victor can do both. And he can “turn up” his internal dynamics too, a skill that comes in handy when playing in a group. Later, during their gig, Michael teaches Victor how to make the audience applaud for a soloist by creating a contrast in dynamics that puts a sonic spotlight on the horn player and gives the crowd a cue when to applaud.

Interpreting this Lesson: Varying intensity and learning to control that as much as you work to control tempo, rhythm, or pitch is the big takeaway for me here. Crescendo and descrscendo are two of the most powerful signals of emotional change in a song, but the idea that there are analogues that don’t only involve volume is a cool concept.

Applying this Lesson: One of the lessons here that applies to practice is being more conscious of dynamics, within and/or on successive run-throughs of a song or passage. It tends to get overlooked when we work alone on a piece of music b/c — at least in my case — I’m often more worried about getting something clean in terms of pitch or up to the right tempo. Another lesson is more applicable when playing with others, and is captured by the story of Victor helping the sax player get an applause break. That power lies with the bass player, not to move out front but to create the ground against which the figure of the saxophone solo can stand out and be noticed. It’s done through changing dynamics — varying the intensity of volume, pitch, and speed, among other things.

Chapter 7: Tempo/Rhythm

Michael comes back home, can’t sleep, goes out to get some orange juice and returns from the store to find a young boy — 11 years old — in his house. The boy proceeds to help him recognize that his headache might be a good thing and teaches him an exercise for improving his time.

Interpreting this Lesson: The learning part of this chapter is pretty straightforward. Victor learns a technique for using a drum machine or metronome to practice staying in the pocket, always getting back to the 1 at the beginning of a four-bar pattern. The boy shows Victor how to take away a note and, gradually, whole bars until he just has one beat — the one — and himself to keep time. Each time the one comes around, you hear how on the beat you are…or not. The boy shows Michael that you can practice this with all kinds of playing — a repeated line, then a line with fills at the end of measures, and then while soloing — but the goal is always to hit the one. You can even practice without playing at all. Feeling the pulse in your body and calling out the one as it comes around.

Applying this lesson: Just do this. Play with a metronome. Play repeated patterns and work on feeling the pulse, staying in the pocket, and hitting the one. It’s harder than it sounds, especially when you are only hearing one audible beat every four measures!

Chapter 8: Tone

This chapter felt the most allegorical so far. In it, Victor meets a new person — Uncle Clyde who is apparently a homeless man, though like Michael also more than he initially appears. Michael & Uncle Clyde know each other and, while Victor is watching, they work together to help another man who has been injured. They do it by altering the tone of the man’s body, Victor learns. Victor is confused and Michael engages him in dialogue about tone, sound, and vibration…and also about space and time.

Interpreting the Lesson: A key idea that Michael comes back to several time is the way all matter is connected, even if it appears separate due to the way we experience time and space, there is — in theory and practice — a oneness. I thought of the big bang and also of the way music, and all sound, has a way of recruiting the matter around it by causing them to vibrate on the same frequency.

The takeaway here is a bit elusive compared to some of the other chapters, but I think it is that tone is about connection. Finding the right tone, which doesn’t always happen, is not only up to the person playing music. It’s also about the other people and inanimate things around the player. They are all organized, potentially, by some finite set of tones that will cause them all to resonate. Locating those makes for the kind of transcendent experiences we associate with and seek out in music.

Applying this Lesson: I don’t quite know how best to apply this one but there is perhaps a clue in Michael’s comment to Victor that some days you seem to have it and some days you don’t, musically. This is a reminder to stay humble, to be willing to listen and not just play, and remember that music is about connecting, not just about one person.

Chapter 9: Phrasing

Victor and Michael return to Victor’s house to find Uncle Clyde there waiting. The lesson for Victor this time is about phrasing. The first important idea that both Victor & Michael emphasize is the way all of the elements of music can be grouped into meaningful and intentional phrases. Uncle Clyde helps Victor to see how important it is to be intentional, and that when we are we can do what we set our mind to doing or learn what we set out to learn. The second important idea is about the way phrasing allows the musician to change the way the audience feels, perceives, and understands by bringing them along. Uncle Clyde shows Victor this by playing the harmonica and leaving him impressed by the musical journey he took.

Interpreting the Lesson: I made a connection in this chapter with an idea I’ve written about with Ben regarding how we can move toward larger, more abstract, ideas as we practice music in the same way we might move from learning individual words to organizing words into sentences and then into different genres or forms. Each move “up” affords fluency and gives the creator of a discourse or a piece of music more choices to work with, more tools in the toolkit to construct an experience for an audience.

In this chapter, Uncle Clyde makes this point in a few ways. One is by code-switching with Victor to demonstrate how his accent and dialect and tone of voice can produce different feelings and reactions in those around him.

Applying this Lesson: This chapter encourages us to approach making music with intention not just to get all the right notes in the right order, but to make meaningful phrases using all the parts of music: dynamics, tone, rhythm… I relate this to practicing blues shuffles or maybe walking bass lines over different kinds of chord progressions. We are doing more in that kind of practice than just playing notes-in-a-row, we are working on phrases, starting with repeated ones, that we can use to establish patterns and then to introduce variations.

Chapter 10: Space/Rest

In what may be the longest chapter, Victor learns about the number zero and its relationship to other numbers from a fortune teller in a bookstore, and then he learns about how to leave and make space in music from a drummer. Both lessons communicate how important the contrast is between a sound and a lack of one, the way emptiness can hold a place for something else and thereby enhance, even multiply the effect that filling the space can have.

Interpreting the Lesson: The themes in this chapter have been visited before, and so there is some refrain here but also a — ahem — “zeroing in” on how to use spaces and the musical figure for space — rests — in the context of playing with other people and playing for an audience. Leaving space means giving yourself time to listen and also for each thing you play to be heard more clearly and distinctly. Creating silence where there had previously been sound is also a powerful way to capture the attention of a listening audience — far more powerful than turning up. Victor learns this lesson when he watches the drummer do a solo that consists of mostly rests. After laying down a solid pocket groove, the drummer takes it away, leaving the audience to continue the groove. He plays just a single hit on the splash cymbal, to the delight of the audience, in an eight bar solo before resuming the pattern. The crowd goes wild.

Here again, Victor touches on a concept I’ve written about! In Funk music, the powerful pulse on the 1 of the measure establishes a means of crowd participation in the groove. It’s all predicated on strong beats and weaker — or no! — beats, making (and leaving) space for the audience to fill in with a head nod, a dance move, an air slap on an air bass, or a vocalization.

Applying this Lesson: The most powerful thing I learned here is the concept of “playing” rests, something that I will work on applying when I play original pieces in particular or when I’m doing an arrangement of someone else’s work. The tendency when you are playing a solo or writing a featured part for yourself is to fill it all in, to take up as much of the available space as you can — as Victor does when he solos with the band in the chapter. When we do that, even in a prepared part, we tend to rush the rests to get to the next notes instead of playing the rests intentionally. I’m going to work on that!

Chapter 11: Listening

In this, the final “measure” of Victor’s journey through Michael’s key elements of music, our two companions go into the forest at night to hear the music that nature makes. Michael shows Victor how to listen with his whole body.

Interpreting the Lesson: Music is alive. That’s an important idea throughout the book and here, in the final chapter, Victor has an experience of it. The vibrations that animals calling make in the forest at night bring a whole ecosystem together. Other sounds, like a passing airplane, can disrupt these songs and rhythms, knocking nature out of balance. The lesson Victor learns is that listening to what happens is a way to be in tune — literally and figuratively — with the natural world. And when we are in tune, we may find a way to join in and add music that fits in and nourishes the natural order.

Me (second from left) on stage at the Jam at VixCamps with my awesome bandmates

Applying this Lesson: I have a feeling that this chapter offers a preview of what I’ll get to do while at Victor’s Nature and Music Camp…we’ll see!

Chapters 12 & 13: The Dream & Back to the Beginning

In this final chapter, Victor has a dream that he is pushing a shopping cart, collecting ideas. His cart is overflowing. In his dream he meets music, who is personified as a woman. They talk. She asks him to believe in her, believe she is real and not just something made up. She foreshadows a turning point in his life when Victor will change the way he thinks about playing music. This new perspective is a synthesis of all the things he’s learned from Michael, Uncle Clyde, the young boy, Sam, and Isis the fortune teller. Music ends by asking Victor to help keep her alive. As Victor wakes, he has a moment of confusion, wondering if these other people, these odd characters who have helped him learn, are real or if they were imagined.

In the final chapter, the book’s coda, we are left with a few answers and more questions. It seems Sam is real, and Uncle Clyde, though he’s now passed on. Victor has dedicated his life to music and it is paying off for him. He got to play at Carnegie Hall, he won Bass Player of the Year, and a banjo player he knows is thinking of starting a jazz group… As for Michael and Isis, he hasn’t seen them again. Nobody else seems to have seen Isis at all. But Michael’s spirit is not gone. In fact, Victor finds himself in Virginia visiting his parents, out for a run, he feels a bit of a chill so he grabs a raincoat and wide-brimmed hat. Along the route he finds a beat up unicycle. And on his way back he passes by a place that seems to call out to him. He goes into an apartment to find a young man with a bass guitar. And, in colorful dress like his mentor, proceeds to tell him all about music…fulfilling his promise to Her.

Bill Hart-Davidson

Written by

Hyphenated, father, academic, juggler, cyclist, cook. Philosophy of life: give.

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