victor wooten - the music lesson - book

“The Music Lesson” – book review

Recently, I heard of the book The Music Lesson (Penguin Putnam Inc, 2008), written by Victor Wooten. It tells of the rather mystical and dreamlike journey world class bassist Victor Wooten has taken as a young man, while struggling to make a living as a musician.

The author felt stuck as a musician and wasn’t getting enough work, when a teacher shows up in his house, completely out of the blue. Victor had fallen asleep while trying to practice scales and other exercises on his bass guitar (something he found boring and made him sleepy), and he woke to find this stranger in his room, Michael, who proceeded to show him all manner of things about music.

What follows is a whole series of amazing events and experiences, almost unbelievable for both the author and me, as a reader. In fact, I was not sure which passages are true, or are purported to be true and which are not. The story is presented as a sort of fable, but it’s also utterly practical in the sense that many of the music lessons presented can be applied in real-life. The chapters of Victor Wooten’s well written book are built up from the music lessons the author received, which are taken from musical elements underrepresented in our current music education. The book is full of unexpected twists and turns and culminates in an description of the author communicating with Music as a living entity with awareness.

The magical events in the book appear to have common ground with works from anthropologist Carlos Castaneda, who wrote extensively about his shamanistic and sorcery experiences in Mexico. Being able to perceive energy directly, the ability to be in two places at the same time and people reading each other’s thoughts are but a few examples of themes that Wooten’s book has in common with themes in Castaneda’s works. I mention this correlation, but I do not have much personal experience with this.

In the beginning of The Music Lesson, the author writes he was somewhat reluctant to share these extraordinary experiences, for fear of being ridiculed. Indeed, the stories really tested the boundaries of my ordinary everyday reality. Victor Wooten writes that people will have to find out for themselves what’s true. I like that, though that makes it hard to grapple with. And is there really any other way, that each individual tests for himself what he’s taught? How on Earth I’m going to do that is another question, though.

Trying to put Wooten’s The Music Lesson in perspective, I found myself reminded of the following  transcription from an audio documentary about R. Buckminster Fuller (1895 – 1983):

Narrator: Bucky [R. Buckminster Fuller, ed.] suggests that we shift our way of looking at the problem of ‘making a living’. Instead of figuring out what we can earn money at, and spending our lives doing that, he suggests we determine for ourselves ‘what needs doing’. Not what the market demands, but what truly needs doing, and do that. It sounds risky, and it is, but a lifetime of experience has convinced Bucky that an important principle is at work here.

RBF: I did make myself an experiment, and I’m now absolutely confident I’m not misleading anybody when I say that you’ll probably find yourself supported by evolution in utterly unexpected, happenstance ways that you’ll get on. But I’m confident that you can’t do it until you see something that needs to be done that nobody else is attending to […] and you can’t persuade anybody else to do it.

New Dimensions Radio
R. Buckminster Fuller – Audio documentary: The Fifty Year Experiment (9/15/1982)

When Victor Wooten writes about his interaction with Music, the living entity with awareness, he can tell Music is ill. From how I understood this passage in the book, Music has been turned into a money making business, there are all manner of styles and people arguing which is best, it is played in a large part on inhuman computers and taught in a shallow way, where the actual true musical experience is disregarded in favor of the superficiality of music scales and theories of harmony and structure, et cetera. Music – the living entity with awareness – asks Victor to not let Music die. The author’s desire to be an authentic musician was ‘something that truly needs doing’, to put it in Buckminster Fuller’s words. After this, the bassist finds himself ‘supported by evolution in utterly unexpected, happenstance ways’ (again quoting Buckminster Fuller), i.e. supported by the magical experiences he finds himself in as described in the book and consequently finding work as a musician.

One of the things that resonated with me from the book, was the fact that music is vibrations. That in itself may not be a bold statement, but everything is (made of) vibrations. During my youth, I had some very upsetting, if not traumatizing experiences and during adulthood I have suffered a few psychotic episodes. I remembered that when feeling upset, feeling some really bad emotions as an adult, I experienced them as very unpleasant vibrations. With this in mind, I thought perhaps all health and illness can be expressed not only in terms of biology and chemistry, but also in terms of vibrations, which can be sensed. I certainly feel that, in addition to years of helpful conversations with a psychiatric nurse, my years of composing – being completely engaged and immersed in music – has done wonders for me as a healing effect, in a sense calming my own irritated vibrations.

Of course, I watched performances of Victor Wooten on YouTube. I find it such a joy to watch him play his bass, which is at times incredibly virtuoso, and yet so subtle and relaxed. He just plays, completely at ease with a big smile on his face. So inspiring!

2 replies
  1. A Kay
    A Kay says:

    This book is worth reading again and again. There’s a lot of golden nuggets for practicing a musical instrument as well as how to perform. I enjoyed the allegorical presentation of his ideas. Some ideas were maybe taken too far, but I also appreciated the spiritual or metaphysical aspects about music.Overall, it just helped me appreciate music more and become more excited to practice.

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