Lessons from a VW

Victor Wooten
Image via Wikipedia

There are no such things as limits to growth, because there are no limits to the human capacity for intelligence, imagination, and wonder. ~Ronald Reagan ————————–

Last Saturday at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, I went to listen to Victor Wooten give a clinic. A while ago I posted a review of Victor’s book The Music Lesson, which is up for an audiobook award. For the clinic, Victor Wooten played with the fantastic and funny bass player (yes, there is another bass player in his band) Anthony Wellington; legendary jazz bassist John Clayton showed up for an improvised tune or two. The clinic was a fantastic example of playing, teaching and telling it straight. It was so good and inspirational, I knew it would be worth sharing.

As Victor and Anthony set up their gear and plugged in, they took questions from the audience. One high-schooler raised his giant hand and asked how he could double tap with such big hands. Did Victor have any advice on how to double-tap with meathooks like that? (his hands looked pretty normal, really)

Victor shook his head and said something like, “You know, I’m going to tell it to you straight because that’s why we’re here.  Why are you limiting yourself by believing that you’re held back by big hands? Already you’ve failed because you think your hands are too big. You’ve got these two beautiful hands and you think they’re not gonna serve you.” Anthony spoke up, “You know man, we saw a guy play for the pope who had no arms! He played with his feet! If that guy found a way to play with no arms at all, you’ve got no excuse.” Both musicians delivered these much-needed words of wisdom in a kind and caring (but no-nonsense) way that isn’t shown well by words alone.

You have to be careful asking a question of a master, because when the disciple asks a question, the answer given by the master digs past the question to prune not the branch but addresses a deeper, more fundamental root. He and Anthony both went on to help the kid (and the rest of us) understand that it’s the mind that limits us. Believing in limitations is what makes them real. Our oversized, overactive brain is what does us in. They didn’t neglect real practical advice for this kid though, saying at the end that if large hands really were holding him back, he could play on a bass with a bigger fretboard, with more space between the strings.

Victor had set up a Boss Loopstation, the gadget I reviewed in the last post, so it was cool to see that one of the best bassists on the planets uses this great piece of tech. He fired it up to teach us about one of my favorite topics, practice. He said that when he needs to practice something mundane like scale, as soon as he gets the fingers down he turns it into music. He demonstrated this by taking a major scale and then grooving on it: up the scale and down, then in thirds, and then choosing what seemed random notes. And I’m telling you, it was funky and smokin’! Great advice.

Anthony Wellington talked about practicing toward mistakes, or rather, mistake recovery. He said, “You know I love Victor, love his music, and he’s one of the best musicians on the planet, but that cat plays more wrong notes in a show than anybody I’ve ever heard.”

Victor goes on to explain what a mistake is and demonstrates the concept of “wrong” notes. We only have 12 notes, we use 7 for most songs, so there are only 5 that are “wrong.” Not only that, but all of the right notes can be reached within a half step up or down from the supposedly wrong one. Victor then got a groove going with Anthony and John Clayton and demonstrated all the “wrong” notes, and their resolution. He showed us all why it’s better to think of these notes not as “wrong,” but rather to hear them as musical tensions or “approach tones.” It was a masterful lesson in a short amount of time. I could’ve listened to him all day. It’s rare for great players to also be great teachers, and it’s a blessing to have people like Victor, Anthony and John in the world. Thanks, guys!

Here’s a vid of Victor and Anthony doing their thing. Pretty amazing! Enjoy and have fun with your practice.


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