Music theory is the theory of how music works. In other words, music already works without theory. But theory is useful for understanding what made that amazing music you just heard. Theory is broad enough to include any statement, belief, or conception about music. In other words, theory is how someone might analyze why things sound good, but is not the end all to playing well. Music theory is observation. Music came before theory. Music comes from within.
Theory can really come in handy when you’re looking to play something complex. With high caliber musicians, theory can help to make sure that what you have to say fits in with the rest of the conversation. It’s like trying to have a conversation with a handful of rocket scientists. You’ll only be able to say so much if you’ve only mopped the floors in the lab.
Jonelle Mosser is an older woman in her early 50s with a heart still in her 20s. Full of passion for life, music, and signing, Jonelle brings us much more than vocal lessons, but has caused most of us to be able to truly appreciate music in being a human demonstration of the kind of life it gives. I’ve particularly enjoyed her affinity for old gospel from the 20s, 30s, and 40s, and negro spirituals. The wakening of the soul is just as important as the wakening of the heart in making music. Without a soul full of live, music is sterile and without hope.
Jonelle taught us basic breathing technique today for singing. Think of a balloon in a bottle filled with air. As much air as you need to sustain the note, but don’t take huge deep breaths. Lean against a wall with both hands on it and make a plank out of your body – like you were doing pushups on the wall. Breathe bottom to top as you’re headed towards the wall, exhaling. Breathing is one of the most important things needed to phrase properly. As bass players, it’s easy to become detached from our instrument. Don’t be detached from it, and don’t be detached from your audience. Everything has its place and time… including breathing.
What most musicians wouldn’t give for just one day packed full of growth. Bob Franceschini: world renowned saxophonist; helped design a new breed of sax for Yamaha. Victor Wooten: most proficient bassist on the planet. JD Blair: drummer for Shania Twain; so tight, they thought someone turned the metronome off during the audition. Not to mention Richard the nature guy, the one dude you’d want to be friends with if you were half eaten by a bear. I get to spend three weeks with this, and much other amazing talent, and have direct access to ask them questions, request demonstrations, or just pal around. If you haven’t signed up for a camp yet, you don’t know what you’re missing. This blog certainly doesn’t do it justice.
I’ve been recovering from heat exhaustion the past 24 hours, so I missed out on some of the festivities last night and early this morning. Our morning kicked off with another nature walk followed by some archery. Quite frankly, I prefer shooting things until they’re dead. I can do that real well. I have no need for toy sticks and rubber bands. Give me a .44 magnum and we’re cool.
I know Kung-Fu… and about seven other Japanese words. Victor started out the morning showing us some limbering exercises to build our tendons, in preparation for our SiFu’s visit later on in the week. Victor says once you build a tendon, you never lose it. We approach the martial arts from a defensive perspective, but in many ways directly relates to bass playing. Today’s session didn’t feel like it was related to anything but pain. As I type this, I’m still tending to swollen body parts that I never knew I had.
The first exercise had us on our knees with our palms faced backwards. Vic showed us a little magic trick: Flip your hand the other way backwards, then rotate it out, and it looks like you’re rotating it a full 360 degrees. Eat your heart out, David Blane. The next exercise had us lay on our stomach and put all four appendages in the air, like we were a banana. This built our abs, or some other muscle that hurts down there. We then flipped to each side and on our back, balancing only on our center mass with all other body parts up in the air. Next up, calf exercises. Grab a partner’s arm and then push up and down on your calves to raise and lower your legs, without moving the rest of your body. Then spend three minutes raising your leg parallel to the floor and point your foot at the wall. If you’re not in agony by now, pull it to your chest. Finally, grab a partner, take their arm, and alternate round kicks. Try not to kick your partner in the package.
Sundays mark a day off at Wooten Woods, so seven of us got together for a field trip to the music city. The first landmark to hit: Pancake Pantry. We were told by several different sources that it is by far the best place to have breakfast in Nashville, and that became apparent when we came across a line wrapped around the corner outside, at about 90 degrees. When asked, random people polled in line explained that it was worth it and we’d be stupid to go somewhere else. About 20 minutes later, we were sitting down. Georgia peach pancakes. Flavorful sausage. Delicious hash browns. Breakfast was insanely filling and ridiculously delicious.
We have two campers visiting from Russia. We call them the cosmonauts… we spent a good part of the day trying to teach them lame lines to pick up American women. It’s slightly entertaining, but entirely unnerving to hear someone with a thick Russian accent trying to say, “How YOU doing?” and then wink. It was even more unnerving trying to put together a story they could use to impress someone, like “I’m really ex-KGB”. We had them practicing on us a bit, and they did get pretty good: “How YOU doin? Nice shoes. Can you show me around Nashville? I’m kind of a big deal. *wink*”
Have you always suspected the pros had some amazing studio secrets that made their playing reach far beyond scales and modes, and into the realm of impossibility? Pro technique is the Matrix of music. We know it’s there. We’re searching for it. But the secret of the techniques are rarely ever revealed. Instead, we musicians sit in frustration wondering what it takes to play like our heroes. Our heroes have indeed pioneered the way and deserve the pedestal we put them on for finding out the hard way just how to emit great music. Fortunately, we also have men like Vic Wooten and Steve Bailey who are not only pioneers, but generous enough to share their findings with us and show us openly how to dance to the same rhythm and see what they see. Today was the first day of coming into maturity as a musician. I’ll warn you though, you really need to be here to experience these techniques first hand, before you’ll “get” them.
Day five felt like we were introduced to the universe, life, and everything. We were packed with so much music knowledge today, I’m still struggling to grasp onto all of it just to write a reasonable blog entry about it. While previous days at bass/nature camp have been more nature intensive, today was much heavier on the music side. You name it – upright basses, improvisation, theory 101, and advanced techniques all wrapped up in one 100-degree day in where-the-heck-am-I Tennessee.
Day four was much of a blur for a number of reasons. We started out with 90 minutes of what felt like advanced Yoga which both exhausted and rejuvenated me. Our Yoga instructor put us through the gauntlet in the dome, on a day that was approaching about 95 degrees. After an hour and a half of the workout from hell – in a sauna, I felt better than I could imagine. My shorts and shirt were entirely soaked, and I was entirely covered from head to toe in sweat… yet somehow I felt remarkable, as if my body had been through a transformation of sorts. Doing it to some Cheryl Crow made it enjoyable at least. What did we get out of it? We learned how to strengthen our muscles, how to relax, and how to breathe. All things critical to a bass player.
After Yoga, we had three classes back to back along with a bunch of exercises. The first class was with Victor: the power of chromatic scales. Vic had us play the chromatic scales to a groove and taught us how to make it sound like a solo. A few tricks: start a fifth up or down from the root, and start walking back to the root every quarter note. By the time it resolves, it makes for a real pleasing solo to the audience. Also try soloing on the chromatic scale starting a half step below the root for a similar effect. Lastly, start on the flat fifth and work your way up to the ninth. Vic also cleared up some issues I’ve had with chords for years. A lot of chords I’ve tried never sounded quite right, so I’ve been sticking with the ones I’ve read in tabs and such. The secret to great sounding chords is to raise the third of the chord an octave. He also showed us some basic chord 101: Any chord with a 7 or above in, the 7 is minor unless specified as a major. And the third is always major unless it’s specified as a minor.
Day two was an eventful day at woot camp and full of fun surprises. The morning felt more like an opening ceremony to the camp. Bass / nature camp isn’t so much about bass as much as it is about music. Before I discovered Vic’s videos and books, I was somewhat torn on music. I played it as an expression through my time with various church bands, but overall thought music was something to compete with. Picking up the bass had originally felt as if I had resigned myself to a lifetime of frustration and competition. While I knew there were ways to serve with music, Vic taught me that music is something to fellowship with, similar to a relationship. It’s something you grow with and learn to become familiar and affectionate with. And if you stick with it, you and music will grow old together and learn to appreciate the trials and frustrations you’ve faced together; the pain is someday replaced with joy in your playing.
Our nature instructor, Richard, proceeded to build fire in only a couple of minutes using the bow and drill method, while Victor serenaded us to some smooth bass. Every native culture has fire as an integral part of their makeup, and soon we’ll be making our own fire building sets. Fire produces warmth and companionship, just as music does. It gives life just as music does. Much of what we have learned so far about music, in fact, comes from our understanding of nature. Richard made the point that what you don’t take the time to get to know something, you fear it. When you don’t take the time to get to know nature, you can fear it too, such as strange bugs or animals, but also in life. How many things have I feared in life because of mere ignorance? How many opportunities did I have that I’ve abandoned because of ignorance and fear? Richard continued, saying that what you fear, you also destroy. Whether it’s a non-threatening spider crawling into a tent, or bigger things in life; how many things have I destroyed in my life simply because I feared them or failed to understand them? I’m no more innocent of making bad decisions in my life than anyone else, and have plenty of regrets in my 34 years on this planet. Have fear and ignorance robbed me? What have I destroyed, or almost destroyed, in my past simply because I was afraid? What you fear, you also attract, and the things you fear in life keep popping up; you can’t run away from what you fear because you call to it. Your fears haunt you like old ghosts.
I’m in hot, humid Only TN just outside of Nashville. Three weeks. Thirty students. Vic Wooten and his team of extremely talented instructors are going to pump as much theory, technique, and wisdom into us as we learn the difference between playing around with an instrument, and being a world class musician. If you haven’t heard of Victor Wooten, check him out on YouTube. He’s well respected across the world as quite possibly the most proficient bassist alive. If you want to learn something, go to the best. We’ve got three weeks to whip into shape, and I’d better pay attention as we’ll be performing at a concert in the French quarter of Nashville in three weeks time. I asked Vic if I could blog about my experience, and he cleared me to talk about anything I want, especially if it’ll help people who are reading it. I’ll try and blog every day, and can already tell you my expectations are set high.
This is technically bass/nature “camp”, but being that I can barely focus on bass in this heat, let alone the poor hygiene to ensue, I checked myself into a nearby bed and breakfast down the street. So technically, this is bass/nature/bed and breakfast camp for me. I’ve already taken a reasonable amount of flack for that, but that’s OK: I’m the one sitting here in a nice comfy bed tonight, having had a long cool shower after a sweaty day. Come the first rain storm, or the first 100 degree night, the scoffers will suffer, while I’ll be appreciating my soft, comfy bed, air conditioned room, walk in shower, and mints on my pillow. Chestnut Hill Ranch is a quaint Tennessee farm that’s been converted into a Bed and Breakfast. Hot coffee, juice, and noms await me every morning. I have my own bath robe, rustic furniture in my room, and some of the most comfy pillows money can buy. After all, you spend 1/3 of your life on pillows. They’re worth the money to have the best. And that’s the difference between Chestnut Hill and a La Quinta Inn. That, and the fact that from the minute I left my vehicle, three roosters walked over to greet me, taking turns crowing. Thank goodness I have shades in my room so I don’t scare all the small woodland creatures.