Victor Wooten’s Bass/Nature Camp: Day 1

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.

The first day of camp officially starts at 5PM CST today, but many of us showed up a coupe of hours early and hung out with some of the other musicians who are all anxious to learn. Your typical range of novice to expert players are here, ranging from teenagers to guys in their 50s, but everyone came expecting something. The two most common questions I’m getting from this group of dedicated musicians?

1. Dude, is that an iPhone 4?

2. Is the reception as bad as they say it is?

The stage is where the fun happens. Some of the more advanced guys jam out Vic Wooten tunes, while the novices are happy to just thump a simple rhythm, and pay attention when they can learn something new. We all manage to jam together quite peacefully. The more experienced bassists could stand to learn a lot from the novices in fact: like restraint, listening, and thought; three things that are easy for a novice to have, but important for them to continue to exercise.

Together, we all pack in about five at a time on stage for jams – five bass players all simultaneously. You might think that’d sound like a heinous mess, but when you know what you’re doing, you can actually get a pretty intense and great sounding jam. Whoever’s not hanging out on stage is chatting it up with other campers, eating banana chips, or making the metallic slapping sound of electric bass strings when no amp is connected. There’s a local chef who caters three meals a day, and piles of snacks are sitting around. Sponsor’s banners hang from the walls, and a small shop has some of Vic’s warez. I’ve already got my eye on a “Got Groove?” bumper sticker. Hopefully I still have some – or even more – by the time camp is over.

Dinner is served. A lot of good food, but with a twist. While there is a lot of “normal” food, like TIlapia and sausage, there’s also a lot of great food made with fresh “nature” veggies, beans, and other things. I tried a little of everything and was doing the snoopy dance by the time I was finished. This is good stuff! So much for losing weight on this nature trek! (Note: As it turned out, I lost about 15lb during camp)

After dinner, a hand-written sign was brought out: “Imagine that you have to introduce yourself to someone that you’ve never met… Imagine that you only have 60 seconds to do it. What would you say? How would you say it? Tonight, you’ll get your chance. BUT… Only with your bass”. By this time, rumors were also spreading that Steve Bailey was accompanying Vic later on in the evening. Well isn’t this just darling. 30 students scrambling to come up with a 60 second solo to describe ourselves to Vic Wooten and Steve Bailey… two world renowned musicians…TONIGHT. As I made the rounds asking if anyone knew what they were going to play, the majority vote was opting for, “wing it!”. My position was to play a series of small ditties that describe the many different dimensions of me. I don’t think the idea caught on much.

Within a little while, Vic and Steve showed up and got right down to business. We covered some camp logistics (like, “don’t get anyone pregnant out here!”) and special rules for men, like “pick up after yourself, you slobs…” Steve is apparently an out-of-work comic when he’s not playing gigs. This is the first three-week residency, so things are going to be a little different: we’ll have a lot of free time, and we’ll get two square meals a day: brunch and dinner. We also won’t learn about the schedule until each morning, but were instructed to bring our blindfolds at all times.

Once the basics were out of the way, Vic began drawing on a whiteboard. “What is Music?” he asked. The class came up with dozens of answers including emotion, passion, life, and power. Next, he brought out another whiteboard. “What is Nature?” We came up with several more including life, beauty, power, color, inspiration. Vic then made his point by re-labeling the whiteboards “Nature” and “Music”, instead of “Music” and “Nature”. “Anybody have a problem with this?” he asked. Within the first 10 minutes, the point was made that nature and music are one in the same; music is natural, and the two are interchangeable. Most people don’t make this connection. That’s a big part of why this camp has the two fused together.

Vic then continued on about being an ally to music. If the word “musically” is split into two, you end up with “music” and “ally”. To become an ally to something is to become a friend to it: that is; it’s a two way connection. You listen to music. You talk to music. Vic made the point that most musicians tell music what to do, but never practice listening. “What if we approached music as our friend?”. To be a good friend, one must listen.

Of course, I don’t know how far Vic takes this connection to music and nature. Just like a bird, music might have a song, but just how deep of a relationship can you have with it? I guess we’ll learn more of his philosophy in the coming weeks. The cool thing about Vic is he doesn’t force you to accept his philosophy on everything to learn what he wants to teach you. At least that’s the impression I get. He has an opinion without being opinionated.

Victor instructed the class not to take anything he says as truth or a lie; only seasoning like a spice you keep on your shelf. Add it to everything else you have. It doesn’t always matter anyhow: the cool thing about music is that you don’t have to understand it to enjoy it. If music is a language, it has far more than 12 words. People who think music is just 12 simple words are no doubt frustrated musicians!

The key is realizing there is no music in your instrument. The music comes from you. Music is about having something to say: not about the instrument. If you can identify a world class musician, it must be because inside you’re a world class musician yourself: you just might not know it yet. You speak through your instrument the same way you speak through your mouth: your instrument doesn’t make the music, you do.

“I see 31 world class musicians sitting here. My job is to just get you to see it.”

By the time we had finished jamming earlier that day, my fingers had already become sore. I’ve done more playing in one day than I’ve done in months with a band. We all took turns introducing ourselves to Vic Wooten and Steve Bailey. Then it was time to go back to our bed and breakfasts… er, I mean tents.

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