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 Piano Lessons: Tricia Tunstall’s “Note By Note”

“An instrumentalist is an athlete.” –Tricia Tunstall

For many people, taking piano lessons is an initial gateway to learning to make and understand music for themselves. Knowing that 88-key terrain of black and white tones and semitones is a giant step towards understanding the pushes and pulls of tonal music, and piano playing makes mind and hands dexterous, connecting the physical with the emotional through sound. Last but not least, taking piano lessons–probably, it’s safe to say, more so than taking guitar or drum lessons–is a marker of social class and badge of having a well-rounded education. If you’ve learned and practiced your scales, played Beethoven’s “Für Elise”, some atmospheric Debussy maybe, or even mastered a clinical Bach invention or fugue, you’ve partaken in the canon of western classical music–that grand 1000 year-old behemoth that continues to inform and influence so much other music around the world even as it risks becoming a museum piece itself.

In her book Note By Note (2009), Tricia Tunstall explores the experience of teaching piano, that “weekly session alone together, physically proximate, concentrating on the transfer of a skill that is complicated and difficult” (3). Tunstall, a veteran teacher of children and teenagers of all ages and stages, conveys well the relationships among herself, her students, the piano, and the notes on the page in this fluid, insightful, and eminently readable memoir. Every student has different needs, interests, and abilities, yet each must learn how to really listen to sound and learn how “to rescue music from its ubiquity–to pull it from the background to the forefront, free it from its uses” (7). Piano lessons, Tunstall says, are about (re)situating music as an autonomous practice–to save it from being merely a thing downloaded and listened to as a soundtrack for something else. Note By Note captures the piano lesson itself as a kind of autonomous practice. It’s a space to learn about the development and limits of skill, concentration, and the musicking body.

Young children especially seem to intuitively understand music as an object of inherent pleasure, taking delight in finding the right keys and “enjoying pure sonority” (18). But as their piano lessons progress over time and make music increasingly a process of serious study, the lessons also discipline the students in ways that will curtail that intuitive enjoyment of pure sonority. As Tunstall notes, sometimes the acquisition of a musical skill comes at the expense of a musical impulse” (18). For example, for many piano students, learning to read notes on a page entails “the death of the improvisatory impulse” (21). Tunstall admits to being uneasy about this fact of western music enculturation: on the one hand, one needs to learn how to read in order to have access to all that great music; on the other hand, as our eyes become adept at interpreting notes on the page as “music” some of the subtle connections between the ear and the “improvisatory impulse” are muted. Tunstall addresses this fact by having all her students improvise at the end of their lessons. It’s not a perfect solution, but it reinforces the idea that music is a living activity and not just an acquired skill of note-decoding.

Not surprisingly, popular music is of great interest to many of Tunstall’s students, and some of the more interesting sections in Note By Note chronicle the author’s assessing the musical qualities of rock, jazz, pop, and especially hip hop musics as she helps students figure out how to play their favorite songs on the piano. Many sample-based hip hop songs are, of course, impossible to render (for how does one render spoken word and a rhythm track on a piano?) and it’s fascinating to learn how Tunstall negotiates the terrain of rhythm-based musics while her students look at her expectantly with a please help me figure out how to play my favorite song look.

But for all her attempts to engage with popular music, Tunstall’s allegiances are firmly in the classical world, which she considers “still the most eloquent and compelling manifestation of the musical language we all know” (85). (A minor quibble here: Who is this homogenous “we” Tunstall addresses? “We” don’t all know this musical language–many of us speak in alternate tongues…) And, remarkably, as her students “use their iPods to construct their own musical neighborhoods out of the vast territory of what’s available” (117), somehow classical music finds a way into their listening lives, over and over again. Tunstall marvels at this, but doesn’t take it for granted; she’s receptive to students wanting to learn music that they once heard somewhere and were hooked. For Tunstall, this is simply evidence that the canon of classical piano music has a power “to move those spirits that are open to being moved” (82).

Which brings us to Eddie, one of the dozen or so students whose progress Tunstall carefully maps over the course of her book. Eddie is smitten by Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata (Piano Sonata No.8 in C minor) and desperately wants to learn to play it. Tunstall worries that Eddie has neither “emotional experience nor aural image to guide him” (129), yet Eddie is undeterred, driven by a musically-triggered desire to make Beethoven’s music his own, to get it into his fingers and embody its notes. And so student and teacher embark on the slow process of learning the sonata together. Eddie eventually learns to play it, note by note, and play it well too. “Through playing” Tunstall observes proudly, “he was actually learning a new way to feel” (130).