S3E1: Victor Wooten: Taking Notes from Nature

May 10, 2023
Makhtar Diop and award-winning bassist Victor Wooten discuss nature and music, leadership, and lessons from technology.

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In this episode of Creative Development with IFC, award-winning bassist and author Victor Wooten discusses the link between nature and music, the art of leadership, and the lessons we should heed as technology and artificial intelligence transform many facets of our lives including how we create and engage with music.


Makhtar Diop: Hello and welcome to Creative Development with IFC. My name is Makhtar Diop and I'm the managing director of the International Finance Corporation. Today I have the great pleasure to welcome acclaimed bass player Victor Wooten to my podcast. Victor is a five-time Grammy Award winner and a founding member of the supergroup Bela Fleck and the Fleck Tones. He has been called one of the most influential bass players of the last two decades and was listed as one as the top ten bassists of all time by Rolling Stone magazine. He is also a dedicated music educator who has made nature his classroom. He is tireless in his efforts to inspire a new generation of artists who do not only play their instruments very well, but also have a deep appreciation of the world around them. Victor, welcome to the show.

Victor Wooten: Very honored. Thank you very much for having me here.

Makhtar: So, Victor, a lot of people don't know that in addition to the Grammys that you received, and the wonderful things have you done, 20 years ago you launched this nature camp. Tell me a little bit more about that.

Victor: Yeah, well, I took a class from this gentleman named Tom Brown Jr. and he was talking about nature and tracking animals. And when he was talking, I heard it as music.

And I told myself this, this gentleman is teaching music, he doesn't call it music, he calls it something else but this is music. And even more, this is the way music should be taught. If you think about it, we teach music, you know, here's, here's your scales, here's your technique, go sit in a room and practice.  And you don't become natural at anything by sitting in a room and practicing. So this gentleman, Tom Brown, was saying… he would get on the board. And maybe we're going to track animals, we're going to go out and track a fox, or a wolf or something or a coyote. He would draw the tracks. So we know what we're looking for. We can see how the animals moving on a whiteboard, we can see everything. And then we go out and do it. We go out and do the real thing. We practice a little, but we do it a lot. And I realized, wow, you know, this is how we should teach music. That's how I learned. It's how we all learned to talk; by doing it. When he was drawing circles on the board and showing how the animal runs or walks, I was putting little lines on it and making these little tracks into notes. And I was like, wow, when there's more tracks grouped together, that means the animal is moving faster, just like notes. It was after the class Makhtar, it was after that class that I realized my parents knew the same thing. They grew up on a farm poor, no money, they had to know animals and how to plant gardens. And they knew how to listen to the birds and the trees and the weather. I just didn't realize that they knew it until after I started learning. And I realized, wow, I could have been learning this my whole life if I had paid attention.

Makhtar: That's fantastic. Because you connected some things that people at that time didn't connect. But you went further. You say why don't I take bass players, who usually are in a room, sometimes a dark room, learning double thumbs, slapping, triplets and these kind of things – and let's go to nature. How did this idea of music coming from within translate into the way you are teaching music?

Victor: Yeah, well, in this country, when we find someone who's young, but really good at something… if you take a five-year-old child and put them at a piano and they just start making music… you'll say ‘wow, you're a natural’. That's what we say in this country. You're a natural. Maybe we give a little child a tennis racquet. They never held a tennis racquet. But all of a sudden they're hitting the ball over the net. You say ‘wow, you're a natural’. What we don't realize we're saying, what most of us don't realize is when I call you ‘a natural’ what I'm really saying is that you are like nature. That's what I'm saying: the word natural means to be like nature, having the characteristics of nature. So in this country, we have a beaver. A beaver chews down trees. They don't have to learn how to do it. It's a part of their natural ability. It's a part of who they are. They don't have to take a class, birds just know how to build nests with their beak right. So these animals have natural abilities. But we put ourselves at the height of the food chain. What are our natural abilities? In many cases, many not all cases, in many cases, we neglect them. Or we get taught out of them. The way we learn to talk and speak to each other is through a natural process. When we learn our first language, our parents don't really teach us, they don't sit us down and say, ‘here's your words, go practice’. They talk to us, they put us into the conversation. They don't exclude us. And when we're young, and you're a beginner, if you're a beginner at anything, you're gonna make a lot of mistakes. But when we're learning to talk, we don't get corrected. Nobody says you're doing it wrong, go practice, you're doing it wrong. That's the natural process; is to allow the person to be wrong enough, without knowing, so that they learn the natural way through enjoyment, through doing it, with no fear of being wrong, because you don't even know you're wrong. Your parents adapt their speaking to fit you. They don't make you talk like them. They talk like you to make you comfortable. I was lucky enough to learn music the same way. When I was a young baby learning to talk, I was also learning to speak music. My brothers put an instrument in my hand, and they would start to play. But they allowed me to join the conversation. I didn't know where to put my fingers. But I learned how to bounce to the beat. No one had to teach me that. I learned how to bounce to the beat. And I started recognizing the songs. So, after I had done that a year or two, my brother Reggie started showing me where to put my fingers to now actually play the songs I already knew. So I learned music, in what I call the natural way. But I didn't realize it until I took that class with Tom Brown Jr. out in the woods. Then I realized, wow, this is exactly how I learned music. I want more people to learn this way. And that's why I started the Music and Nature camp in the year 2000. It started with only bass players for seven years, only bass players. But now we do it for all instruments.

Makhtar: Now that's fantastic. And I want to you tell us about something which is one of the best commencement speech. You say that is not a speech, it was a commencement talk.

Victor: Talk!

Makhtar: In 2016, you took your bass and you took the what is also the title of your first book, “The Lesson” - and I recommend everybody to read this book. And the second book that has just been released by Victor Wooten. The chapters are organized around what you are considering as important elements of music: the groove, notes, articulation, duration, technique, emotion field, dynamics, rhythm, tempo, tune, phrasing, space, rest, and listening. So let me talk about the last point, the last chapter, which is listening. And I think that you didn't call it a speech because you were talking about a conversation; saying to people, my job is not to give speech my job is to play music. So let me talk to you with music. So tell us a little bit about that story.

Victor: Yeah, I got asked to do a commencement speech for this graduating class, University of Vermont. So these students are graduating and I'm supposed to come in and give them some enlightening words. And when I first got asked, I thought okay, I'm gonna go talk to some musicians, you know, this will be easy. I know a lot about music. I can speak in their terms. But then I found out that this was not a music group. These were environmentalists. These are people learning to be park rangers and, and how to study trees and things like that. And I was like, Whoa, these are not musicians. And I was honored. Because that's a field I want to know more about. But I realized the people I'm talking to know a whole lot more about this than I do. You know, a lot of the times I can, I can argue that I might know a little bit more about music than the graduating class, if I was talking to musicians. I've been doing it over 50 years. So I could speak clearly. But now I'm talking to people that probably know a whole lot more than I do. What can I tell them about their field? Nothing! But I can talk about who they are and what they're bringing to their field. I knew I was supposed to make a speech. And so I actually wrote a speech. I wrote one and it was the morning of this talk. The morning that I'm reading this speech, and I'm thinking this is, this is horrible. This is too, you know, strict, I don't make speeches, I talk to people. So I threw it out. And I told them, I'm not doing a speech, I'm just going to talk, I don't even really know what I'm going to say. But I just started talking, and then my mother's voice and my dad's voice come through and, and help direct me. To me that, again, is being natural. And that's what I did. But I made myself comfortable by playing the bass also. And this was the first time any of them had seen anyone do a commencement speech while playing.

But what that did, like, for example, if I can show you, I have the bass here, I also have a pedal that you can't see, but it's called a Looping Pedal. So what it means is, is I can, I can play something and it'll record and play.

Victor: So now I can talk. I can say, you know, everybody when I was young… right, and I can take my time and let the music help what I'm saying. It also gives me a chance to think, and because the music is helping me, I can take my time. So sort of like I gave my talk, a soundtrack. And music always helps you not only hear what's happening, but to feel what's happening. Even when there's no words, you get to feel what's going on. So that helped me. Playing the bass and the pedal allowed me to deliver the speech with more feeling, I think, than if it was just my voice alone.

Makhtar: And what you were referring to is something that you're talking a lot about implicitly, even if you're not talking about it explicitly is leadership. There is not one interview, or something that you say without reference to your parents, to your brother. In a sense, you are bringing all that, to think about leadership, how could you summarize a little bit, leadership,

Victor: These are people that made made me better. And that's what a good leader does. A good leader doesn't just tell you what to do. Because then you get good at following directions. A good leader tells you how to do so that you get better at doing it. And then hopefully in the end, you'll become a leader, the same type of leader that helps other people do it not just follow directions. I mean, we need people to follow directions. But we also need people to grow within themselves. So for me, the leader, the best leaders are the ones that teach you how to be.

And I've been lucky enough to have many, really kind of starting with my parents, my four brothers, they're all older than me. I'm the youngest of five boys. So my four older brothers were like four extra parents. But then I met people like Tom Brown Jr. I met people like Bela Fleck, and I've met a lot of great friends, some of them even younger than me, that I've learned a lot from. And it's because of these first teachers-leaders that taught me how to listen to everybody. Not just because you're older than me, you can be younger than me, kids, children, they're honest, they'll say anything. And there's a lot of wisdom there. And so I listened to all of that listened to everyone. I don't have to agree. But I still listen. Because you can learn a lot from what you disagree with. Because in many cases, you think that what you disagree with you think the other person is wrong. Right? But I'm the one disagreeing. The issue is mine, not theirs. It doesn't mean I'm wrong, either. But I realized that when I agree or disagree, I'm talking about myself. And I'm fortunate enough that I that I learned that, that I learned that. And so because it keeps my ears open, and then you and I can disagree and we can still be friends. Because I don't judge you negatively just because I don't agree with you. You know, I can still like you and disagree. And so that's what this teaching has helped me become. And my leaders have helped me become a better person, not just a follower.

Makhtar: I think that it's real what you said in one conversation; if you choose a musician for your band, it's not only the musician who is technically or musically maybe the most suited to your project. But the person you can get along with. And the way you were talking about it is not agreeing. But we're able to have a conversation. I think that what you said resonates a lot to a lot of us. But let's go back to your second book, “The Spirit of Music”, you say the way you were talking about music in the first book - in fact, you have an imaginary teacher, Michael - you did it imaginary because you are scared of telling the truth. And now at this time of COVID, at this time of huge changes the world is facing, you have courage to say what you think. And you say, I don't care about what people will be saying. Tell us a little bit about a journey between the first book, The Music Lesson and The Spirit of Music.

Victor: Sure, I'll say first of all, with both books, I urge people to treat the books as fiction, as just a story. Instead of writing a music book or a life book with ‘this is my method, the Wooten method, do this,’ no, let's just write a story. You don't have to know anything about music, but you can still enjoy it. But I will say this, the lessons are true. The lessons are real. If you gather the lessons, you will be better off for it. There's audiobooks for both of these books, you can listen to them. And all the characters, every character in the book, except one is inspired by real people. So in the first book, when I'm having the conversation with music, you'll hear music talking back to me, and it's my mother's voice. In the audio book, before she passed away it was her voice. The first book was meant to kind of be easy, lighthearted, I want everyone to say, “man, I can do this. I can play music, I have courage”. I gave you more things than just notes. Most of us teachers, when we teach music, we only teach you to 12 notes, and what to do with them; scales, modes, key signatures, harmony, melodies, things like that. But we know that there's more than just notes when it comes to music.

When we're dancing, we're not dancing to the key signature. We're dancing to something else. So that's why in that book that you read, I came up with articulation, rhythm, phrasing, you know, tone, dynamics, space, listening, so many different things. And talked about… there's a chapter on each one, I went in depth to each one, and I related most of them to nature. In the second book, I wanted it to be a little bit more challenging. I want to poke you a little, make you think and make you question and go, ‘Oh, I don't know about that’. Really, in the end question yourself. But I get you to yourself by questioning me or questioning what's in the information in the book, and the people who will do it may take the next step to maybe I could say join me. Because the book talks about what the first book, The music lesson, introduces the concept that music says I'm dying. Music says I'm sick. People don't feel me anymore. She says I have a more intimate relationship with computers than I do with humans now. So I'm talking about this in a kind of light hearted way in a fictional story. But there's a lot going on with music. Some of it good, some of it not so good. Think about when we were young. When we put on a vinyl record, if we had one, or even a cassette, we listened in a group of people. Oh, man, Makhtar got the new record. He got a new… let's go to his house, we got to listen, you know. We listened together, we read everything, all the credits, we knew. Now, we listen by ourselves in tiny earphones... I look at it as the same difference between fast food and slow cooked food. Right? Fast food might taste better, but its guaranteed not better for you. So we may have music that sounds better, clearer or easier to get, free. But I question whether it's as good for you. And that's what I'm hinting at in the book, in the second book. I want you to feel this a little bit. And then I suggest some things that we might be able to do about it.

Makhtar: It's very important the analogies that you made. In the book, you define what you consider as the characteristic of music. But also now you talk about technologies that you use that might affect those elements of music, compression, which affects dynamics; autotuning, which adjusts the tone of voice. And the question I would like to ask you; what is your link with technology. And I'm saying that and I would like you also to expand; at a time when we're talking about climate change, where technology can be part of the solution. But also nature-based solution can help us address the issue of climate change. You’re using a looping machine, sometimes you use compression, because you need to record and you have dynamics on your slap, but you say at the same time is that it's very risky, because it can kill music. So I'm throwing a few things that I heard from you, and just want you to react to it.

Victor: Sure, sure. Technology is the tool. It does nothing. If you just let it sit there. The danger or the joy comes from how we use it. And in music, what we are doing in many cases - and I'm not against tools - I'm using them right now. Right? We're talking through a tool, I use many of the tools that I talked about. And I in the book, I don't call them bad. But I do talk about what's happening to music because of how we're using it. If I allow the tools to take the place of musicality, then I believe we're hurting musicality, because why learn to sing, if I can just fix it, and take a non-singer, and make them more popular and sell more records than a real singer. Right? To me, that's questionable. We used to pay for music and television was free. Now we pay for television, but we expect our music free, totally reversed. So who's to say whether it's better or worse, but we can use our eyes to see what's happening. We don't value music anymore. I'm in the record making business. And I can't sell one. Who's to say whether it's right or wrong or good or bad, but I can't say exactly for sure, and you can see this is what's happening. So what's causing it? Because just about all the music we hear is compressed, right? That's why a television commercial is louder than a television show. Because they take all the dynamics out of it. And they just put it at the loud way. We correct every pitch. So where you used to get all the pitches, and in between, now you only get what's perfect. And what happens is where we used to have songs that lasted for years, Aretha Franklin, whatever, you hear the same songs for years, you hear them now and you go yeah, now songs will stick around for just a few months. And it's gone. So why is it happening? It's worth looking at.

Makhtar: You know Victor, we can talk for a long time, because for me, it's a huge pleasure to be able to talk to you about music. But I just wanted to say something that you brought to all of us: We are entering an era where artificial intelligence is becoming mainstream, you will see more and more people using AI for a lot of things. And what you raised is very much at the heart of the conversation about ethics and artificial intelligence. And we use artificial intelligence which is a very advanced way to do things which are ethically not acceptable, or which are not in line with what we are doing. And you are saying the same thing about music in a sense, and you are making the connection between music. And also what I'm hearing from you is that you know to fight climate change, we can have nature based solution like you are doing in your camp. But also we can have the looping machine, where we can create renewable energy with solar panels or doing wind energy, which is using nature. So what I take in that conversation is similar to music, is also what we are doing in our work every day here at IFC, how these translate in the way of articulating nature-based solution with technology, with hearing people's voices. We haven't talk about voice, but something's which is so important in what you say. You gave us huge insight in terms of leadership, relation to nature, and the way we are organized. Thank you so very much for everything and it was a huge pleasure having you in this podcast.

Victor: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me. I'll speak with you anytime.

Makhtar: Thank you for listening. Creative development with IFC is produced by Lindy Mtongana, Ida Holly Nambi and Maeve Francis for IFC. If you enjoyed this episode, please share it with your network and tell a friend.