Intangible Things: On Victor L. Wooten’s “The Music Lesson”

New Age : “an eclectic group of cultural attitudes arising in late 20th century Western society that are adapted from those of a variety of ancient and modern cultures, that emphasize beliefs (as reincarnation, holism, pantheism, and occultism) outside the mainstream, and that advance alternative approaches to spirituality, right living, and health

Victor L. Wooten’s book The Music Lesson (Berkley Trade 2008) caught me off guard. I came across the book entirely by accident and after having read its first few pages didn’t know if I felt quite compelled to keep at it. So I put it down. And then picked it up again, kept reading a bit. And then put it down again, back and forth, oscillating on how I felt about it. The Music Lesson was speaking in common tones, asking me to forget thick theory for a moment to follow an invented story about what it means to understand music and being musical, making music with meaning—or, as the cliché goes, with heart and soul. Hmm. I put the book down, and then picked it up again. I kept at it. If I stumbled upon the book I should at least have the patience to stay a while and listen, right?

Wooten is a distinctive musician. A bassist since he was a toddler, he’s well-known for his work with the banjo player Bela Fleck. Here is a clip of Wooten playing a virtuosic rendition of “Amazing Grace”:

As if musical skills on their own weren’t enough, Wooten is also a naturalist and animal tracker, directing a one of a kind music camp in Tennessee that teaches musicianship by way of not just musical instruction but also nature exploration.


In The Music Lesson, a fictional account of a set of music lessons, we first encounter Wooten at time in his life when nothing seems to be working. He wants to improve his musicianship, but seems stuck in a rut of old practice habits that aren’t paying dividends. Then, as if by magic, a series of music teachers appear in Wooten’s life to guide him on his spiritual quest through a number of musical concepts. The main teacher is Michael, a mysterious trickster-like figure with eyes that change color on occasion and who comes across a little like a Native American sage and Zorro with a skateboard in tow. But there’s also Uncle Clyde, a homeless old man who plays a mean harmonica, Sam, a precocious boy wonder of a eleven-year old drummer who is wise beyond his years, and Isis, a quirky Russian fortune-teller with an intense interest in connection between numbers and music. Michael, Clyde, Sam, and Isis lead Wooten through a series of lessons on groove, notes, articulation, technique, emotion/feel, dynamics, rhythm/tempo, tone, phrasing, space/rest, and listening. By the end of the book, Wooten’s senses have been thoroughly reoriented, his musical life focused and energized.

Scattered through the text are a number of interesting ideas about music and musicianship. Below are a few of them that struck me.

First, music is inside the musician, not the musical instrument. There are many instances in the book where Michael admonishes Wooten for merely thinking of himself as a bassist rather than as a musician who happens to play the bass. The idea here is that musicality is more an orientation towards the field of the sonic rather than a technical competence on a particular musical instrument.

Second, dissonance in music is contextual. For instance, while two notes a semitone apart sounded together produce a “tense” sound when heard on their own (e.g. try playing the adjacent notes C and C-sharp at the same time), when surrounded by additional tones (e.g. try adding the notes F-sharp and A above to the C and C-sharp) the dissonance can sound quite different and in fact, consonant.

Third, when we say we dislike a music we are admitting a failure to perceive it adequately. In a passage about Wooten’s dislike of bluegrass, Michael tells him: “You are talking about you but blaming your lack of perception on this particular style of Music” (56).

Fourth, “beauty is something you experience, not something you prove” (73). This, to me, is a pure phenomenological stance, and probably what music does best: putting out an experience in time that may not mean anything specific or prove an argument, while at the same time bringing us on a virtual ride that feels important somehow.

Fifth, the idea that emotions are stored as a kind of infinite potential within a musical instrument (116). Admittedly, I had not thought much about this possibility, probably because I know myself to be more interested in what I’m feeling than what emotions may or may not be latent in the instrument. But each musical instrument certainly seems to have its own range of affective potential.

Sixth, a listener’s musical attention can be shaped and directed by playing fewer rather than more notes. Here, Michael explains to Wooten a strategy for accompanying a soloist in a way that his or her solo can shine: “We were creating a hole right in the middle of the music that allowed the soloist to stand there out in the open. We also simplified the music, directing all of the attention to the soloist. . .” (140). The lesson here is that by saying less, you can not only listen more, but also give other musical speakers room to breathe.

Seventh, “music is played from the mind, not the body” (158). This almost seems counter-intuitive, since musicians spend so much time refining their bodily relationship to their instruments. And yet, as listeners we’ve often had the experience of witnessing a musician who manages to hold our attention and compel us not so much through virtuosity per se but through sheer presence. The lesson here is that presence and focus are themselves kinds of musicality that transcend what the musical body can pull off.

Eighth, “you need to get your thoughts out of the way so that your true feelings can speak” (216). This idea relates to point number four above. If music is not about proving anything, but rather a tool for exercising perception, then we are best ready for it when we stop worrying about what it all means. From this perspective, music just is.

Finally, here’s Wooten on listening, perception and synesthesia: “What difference does it make who it is? What does it sound like and how does it make you feel? That is what is important. […] Allow your whole body to pick up the vibrations, using the whole body as an eardrum. […] We think that music stops at the ears. That is a mistake. Vibrations can be felt in all places and all times, even with the eyes. Music can be seen if your awareness is broad enough” (239-240). To illustrate this holistic approach to listening, there’s a striking passage at the end of the book where Wooten and Michael are out in the forest taking in its soundscape. As Michael learns to model his listening acuity on Michael’s, all of a sudden he’s having a full-blown synesthesia experience—seeing sound as color flowing through the forest creatures around him. (It’s pretty psychedelic actually and the image stayed with me for a while, even inspiring my own dream in which everyday objects began speaking in tones. But that’s for another blog post!) The lesson here is that there is potentially no end to listening as a full body—and even out of body—experience.


In sum, The Music Lesson is an idealized account of the musician as a kind of deeply knowing, in-tune seer, healer, and phenomenologist. Michael and the other teachers in Wooten’s life are voiceboxes for the author’s own musical philosophy, and while these at times cartoonish characters are a writerly conceit, it’s a conceit that works well to get Wooten’s many thought-provoking points across. Moreover, it perhaps goes without saying that it’s difficult to talk about philosophical aspects of musical experience without risking sounding cliché or even New-Agey. So hats off to Wooten for trying. I’m glad that I stuck with his zany story to its end.

Last but not least, The Music Lesson is ultimately about the importance of oral tradition to how musical traditions survive and evolve. By the book’s end the narrative circles around on itself, Wooten having taken the place of Michael as a teacher himself, appearing in the life of young musician—a musician that bears a striking resemblance to Wooten himself at the beginning of the book—just at the very moment the young man needs guidance. And so Music—that presence Wooten characterizes as feminine and always worthy of a capital M—lives on as a teachable perceptual power, helping us understand both ourselves and the worlds we live in.

On Blowing Zen: Finding An Authentic Life

“Listening is the gateway to liberation.” – On Blowing Zen

In his book Blowing Zen: Finding An Authentic Life (HJ Kramer, 2000), Englishman Ray Brooks tells a story about discovering the shakuhachi flute while living abroad in Japan with his wife, finding a series of shakuhachi master teachers with whom to study, and finally, through dedicated practice and direction, becoming a master player himself.  Through a series of clearly written accounts of his music lessons, practicing, interactions with his teachers and performing, Brooks creates a neatly delineated world that allows the reader to map his progress from novice cultural outsider to learned practitioner of a sacred musical instrument with a centuries old association with Zen Buddhism as a tool for self-enlightenment.

The book quite deftly combines musical ethnography and memoir to have the reader see how musical experience can focus, give meaning to, and transform what was formerly an unexamined–and remarkably, given the difficulties of learning a musical instrument from outside one’s own cultural tradition–and unmusical life.  Despite some of my initial reservations about the New Agey, self-help premise of Blowing Zen (and the self-help ethos of its publisher), I found myself liking the book as well as appreciating the author’s frank self-assessments at every stage of his journey; indeed, Brook tells a good, true-life story while staying reflective and reflexive about his social encounters through music making. So, okay, I’ll say it: this is a book of self-help through music, gosh darn it, and there’s nothing wrong with that, is there?

One of the refreshing things about Blowing Zen is how Brooks is drawn into the shakuhachi world organically–driven, it seems, only by curiosity to learn more about the instrument.  (He is in Japan, after all, to teach English, not study music.)  He sees in the instrument a way to focus his attention and a reason for sustained work, but he has no goals save to deepen his understanding.  Very cool if you ask me.  “This was a chance” Brooks says, “to study the discipline of working at something everyday without expecting instant gratification” (32).  Once again, very cool.

Yamada-San, Brooks’ first shakuhachi teacher, supports his interest, observing that if the instrument is “played with passion and without motive, it can become much more than a musical instrument” (58).  For Yamada-San, the key is to just “practice for its own sake, and let progress take care if itself.  Don’t corrupt the beauty of learning by becoming attached to an end goal” (59).  How different this approach is from musicians’ typical goals of learning as many pieces as they can as if stockpiling their arsenal of musical artillery!  And yet, Brooks does learn (and memorize) numerous pieces in the course of his practice and lessons.  As he presents his progress, the right stuff just seems to happen at the right time.  As Brooks renders his learning journey, everything just flows like those long, breathy single tones blown on the shakuhachi.

Brooks provides a fairly detailed account of his music lessons with another shakuhachi teacher named Yokoyama-San (115-120), and explains the initial stress of those lessons where “I alone was the self-consumer of my own nervousness” (118).  He also learns about the aesthetic concept of “ma” or space, and, from yet another teacher, how to circular breathe (or make a continuous tone by inhaling through the nose while exhaling through the mouth) on the shakuhachi.  Eventually, the author quits his teaching job and begins earning good money busking in parks.  And, rather remarkably, he even takes up shugyo–a repeated process of spiritual training.  Brooks’ shugyo involves hiking up Mount Takeo, playing shakuhachi for six hours, then hiking back down for sixty consecutive days.  As a result of this self-imposed regimen of physical exertion, solitude and practice, Brooks grows stronger and develops immensely as a musician.

In fact, through his devoted work Brooks eventually becomes a recognized shakuhachi player and his story inspires the reader for its simplicity: do the work and good things will happen.  By the end of Blowing Zen, he’s still talking about discipline too–not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself:

“I was still learning about discipline that isn’t motivated by success or failure and where effort and hard work are their own reward and come naturally, without resistance” (231).

On Music and Discipline: Anna Goldsworthy’s Piano Lessons

Anna Goldsworthy’s memoir Piano Lessons (2010) is a coming of age story about a girl growing up and learning to play the piano in Australia.  From age nine to her late teens, Goldsworthy’s teacher was Russian émigré and master pianist Eleonora Sivan.  Over the years, Sivan guides her pupil through increasingly advanced piano technique and the great keyboard literature of Chopin, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy, Shostakovitch and others.  Along the way, the teacher imparts a sense of the dedication, care, attention to detail, and commitment required to become a professional concert pianist.

Much of Piano Lessons captures the spoken details of Sivan’s teaching in dozens of clearly remembered passages of music talk from Goldsworthy’s music lessons.  (The author was no doubt helped here by the fact that her father, the novelist and poet Peter Goldsworthy, attended many of her piano lessons and kept verbatim notes on Sivan’s teachings for eventual use in his 2004 book, Maestro.)  In one memorable passage, Sivan reminds Goldsworthy that “music is logically organized fantasy” and she must strive to develop her “emotional logic” (40) in order to project her “inner emotional story” (42) through her piano playing.  Goldsworthy does a fine job chronicling and rendering the ups and downs of her journey into classical piano playing and ends her book having succeeded in making her debut as a concert soloist performing with an Australian symphony orchestra.  As a narrative, Piano Lessons is an airtight story, unpacking for the reader how a musical life–a life devoted to music making–is built methodically, one piano composition at a time, one hour of practice after another, one music competition award begetting the next.  But the book also documents a musical life that seems uptight too, and in this regard is perhaps representative of a what it feels like to be professional concert musician–no matter what one’s instrument.

As I read Piano Lessons I found myself thinking about the relationship between musical discipline and mind-body well-being, health and even stress.  What is the (proper) role of discipline in a musical life?  Is it the only route to mastery and/or “success” or are there alternative routes?  And are the structures and performance conventions of western classical music–including the stress on being faithful to a score and playing its notes “perfectly”, and the whole notion of “virtuosity” that every musician in his or her own way strives towards–somehow detrimental to a musician’s health?  As I read Piano Lessons, I wondered: classical music can be great to listen to.  But is it good for you to play it?

My earliest musical experiences were outside of the classical music world and didn’t involve music teachers, but were rather long sessions of musical imitation in the oral tradition: air drumming along with rock music played on headphones.  With drum lessons through my teens, however, I was working on notated snare drum studies, trying to get every note right, striving for increasing my sense of control over my hands and sticks.  By college, I had adopted the music conservatory ethos of everyone around me: hole yourself up in a practice room and practice for hours on end, seven days a week.  I was under no illusions about ever becoming a virtuoso or a soloist; I just wanted to learn and memorize the material assigned for my lessons.  But all that practising did lead me to increased motor skills, muscle memory, and body control, as well as competence to make a “musical” sound.  I practised to lessen performance anxiety, I practiced to internalize the music and make it come “naturally”, and I practiced to push my body and mind to go beyond themselves and transcend the here and now, even without achieving what Goldsworthy describes as “the rapture of virtuosity, of physical mastery” (114).

And while all I did was practice for four years, I never gave it much thought as a kind of social-cultural practice.  Moreover, in my world music and ethnomusicology classes, it never occurred to me to think about practising, discipline and virtuosity in the context of other musical traditions, probably because the musicians from these distant lands just seemed–as if by magic–really, really good at what they do.  Since I’ve broached the topic: Does a master drummer in Ghana or a ney player in Turkey ever practice alone, drilling musical exercises away from their group music making milieus of rehearsing and performance?  Or is solitary practice a western musical preoccupation?

There are, however, some legendary stories about music practising in non-western musical contexts–especially in elite, classical music traditions. For example, the North Indian music tradition is full of stories of musicians practising alone hour upon hour each day.  In his book My Music, My Life, sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar recounts practising for up to sixteen hours a day when he was a teenager, his long hair tied to the ceiling to jolt him awake lest he doze off from fatigue. And Indian tabla drummers have been known to repeat finger drumstrokes many thousands of times per day–even while watching television!–to gain complete fluidity with their instrument.   Doubtless there are many other examples like this too.

But the above examples notwithstanding, the reader of Piano Lessons might keep in mind that most of our world’s musicians don’t read a note of music, nor do they spend most of their time practicing alone, motivated by the goals of control, emotional expression, and virtuosity.  And this is precisely why Goldsworthy’s book is such a valuable case study on the inner life and consciousness of the monolithic force of European classical music.