Sunday, March 2, 2014

Review: Victor Wooten's "Groove Workshop"

Once in a while I would like to showcase books/videos/podcasts that I have found inspirational and useful. Today, let's check out a DVD by the bassist Victor Wooten.

A few years ago, I read Victor Wooten's "The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music". It is a book filled with some stellar musical concepts. However, I think some people have trouble getting into this book for two reasons. One is the phrase "spiritual search". Depending on your cosmological perspective, this could be either welcoming or off-putting. The second is more of a barrier. It is presented in a fiction format. It stars a guru like figure named Michael who imparts his musical wisdom in almost a Carlos Castaneda fashion. Although I found the musical ideas great, I often wished it was more of a proper non-fiction book. But I give Victor credit in finding a creative way to publish a method book.

Wooten's "Groove Workshop" cuts to the chase and features Victor running a clinic with his band mate Anthony Wellington (it's funny when a bass player needs a bass player in his band!). In the video, Wooten imparts the same wisdom from "The Music Lesson" but in a more practical hands on way with a small class of bass students.

Now I want to say this off the bat. This is not just for bass players. It is not just for improvising musicians. EVERY musician would benefit from the ideas in this film. Even though the bass is Victor's vehicle, 95% of this 5 hour/2 DVD set is about music, pure and simple. He presents concepts that have not been explored elsewhere. I don't know why they haven't been explored, because they are paramount to all music creation and experience. (There are a few "bass geek" moments; like when the students are dying to know how Victor does his "double thumbing technique". But these instances make up a minority of the DVD.)

The basic premise is of Wooten's clinic is this:

  • What are the elements of music? 
  • What elements do we normally focus on in our practice?
  • What elements are we ignoring?
Victor quizzes the groups as to what makes up music. They flesh out a list of the following:
  1. Notes
  2. Rhythm
  3. Space
  4. Dynamics
  5. Articulation
  6. Technique
  7. Tone
  8. Listening 
  9. Emotion 
  10. Phrasing
Now, he asks the group an important question. Which of these elements do you focus on? Which are you practicing? Which element have you been taught the most in music lessons/classes? 

Number one. Notes. That is the overwhelming answer. Victor's premise is that it is easy to think and talk about notes. Keep in mind the notes category includes: pitches, chords, intervals, progressions, scales, modes. All of these involve "notes". 

Notes are important of course. But as Wooten demonstrates throughout the video, they are only part of the story. For some reason, the other 9 elements the make music come alive are often glossed over. We are just worried about playing, improvising, or composing with just the "right" notes. But what makes music come to life are ALL of these elements in consort. For some reason, the other ones are often overlooked (or at least not given the attention that we have given "notes".)

Now more mature musicians will recognize how all of the above are equally important. And a good music educator will teach ALL of these elements (And they do so even if they don't use the word "groove". Well played Bach has a "groove"!). 

But since the other nine elements tend to be a little more "abstract" they can be overlooked in favor of teaching the more logical side to "notes" (harmony, scales, etc.) Wooten has us explore ALL of these elements. In each chapter, Wooten explores these other elements in depth. He gives some very creative exercises to isolate and explore these elements. Once, again any musician would benefit.

As an aside, I am very impressed with Wooten as a teacher. Music educators need to check this video out just to observe his enthusiasm and mannerisms. He has a class of bass players of varying ability levels who he has never met before. Yet he has an impressive ability to coax musical results from each students regardless of their level. His positive nature is infectious. You can't help but just feel good listening to this man talk about music.

Here is the official preview video. It is sort of a good introduction, but it focuses a bit on Victor's chops (which are top-notch of course). There is a lot more to the 5 hour DVD that would appeal to every musician.

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