Bass player Victor Wooten speaks on Music as a Language at TEDxGabriolaIsland. Below is the full transcript.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Music as a Language by Victor Wooten at TEDxGabriolaIsland
Well, thank you very much. And it’s true I was born into a band. And very literally — I mean that literally — when I was born, my four older brothers who were already playing music, they knew that they needed a bass player to round out the family band. And so I was born into that role and as I’m older I’m looking back right now, now that I’m kind of called a teacher.
When I look back on that and how I was taught, I realized that I wasn’t really “taught” — which is why I say that music is a language. Because if you think about your first language, for me and probably most of us here might be English, so I’m just going to go with English.
If you think about how you learned it, you realize you weren’t taught it. People just spoke to you. But the coolest thing is where it gets interesting is because you were allowed to speak back.
Now if I take the music example, in most cases, our beginners are not allowed to play with the better people. You’re stuck in the beginning class. You have to remain there a few years, until you are elevated to the intermediate and then advanced. And after you graduate to advanced class you still have to go out and pay a lot of dues.
But with language, to use a musical term, even as a baby you’re jamming with professionals, all the time — to the point that you don’t even know you’re a beginner. No one says, “I can’t talk to you until you got to go over there. When you’re older, then I can speak to you.” It doesn’t happen. No one tells you what you have to say. You’re not made to sit in a corner and practice. You’re never even corrected when you’re wrong.
Think about it, when you’re 2, 3 years old and you say a word wrong over and over, no one corrects you. If you say it wrong enough times, instead of correcting you, your parents learn your way. And they start saying it wrong too. The coolest part of that is you remain free with how you talk. And so you never have to follow the musical role of learning all these years and then going and finding your voice.
With your speaking voice you’ve never lost it. No one ever robbed you of that. And so because when I was young that’s how I was learning. I was learning English and music at the same time and in the same way.
So I tell this to people, I usually say “Yeah, I started when I was two or three”. And I say that just because that’s more believable. But when did you start speaking English? Did you wait until you were two or three? No. You were speaking, I’d probably say, before birth. Whenever you could hear is, when you probably started learning it. To me that’s very very cool, and very very clever of my brothers who were my oldest brother out of the five. I’m the youngest, Reggie is the oldest. He’s only eight years older than me.
So how he was this smart, I don’t know. That’s the real question. That should be the real TED Talk. It’s how he figured out the ingenious way of not teaching us younger brothers how to play. It didn’t start me by putting a bass in my hands. No. The first thing they did was play music around me. From my earliest age that I can remember, I can remember living in Hawaii. And my brothers would set up, and I can remember seeing a plastic stool. A lot of times we’d set up in the front yard but I could see a plastic stool with a little plastic toy Mickey Mouse wind-up-guitar laying on top of that stool. No one had to tell me that that was for me.
The same way no one has to tell you when it’s your turn to talk. You know how to do it and so I knew that stool was for me. I knew that instrument was for me. And it had plastic strings on it, you would wind it up, and it would play a song. But you couldn’t really play it from the strings. And it wasn’t about that.
By the time I was old enough to hold an instrument, they gave me something to hold. Just for the sake of holding something. Preparing me for the later years. It wasn’t about playing that instrument. That’s the mistake a lot of us music teachers make, as we teach kids how to play the instrument first, before they understand music. You don’t teach a kid how to spell. Teaching a kid to spell ‘milk’ before they’ve been drinking a lot of it for a few years doesn’t make sense; does it? But for some reason we still think it does in music. We want to teach them the rules and the instruments first.
But by the time I was about two and they put that toy in my hands, I was already very musical. Because I believe you’re born musical. Just listen to anybody’s voice. Listen to any child’s voice, there’s no purer music than that. So my brother somehow knew I was born musical. But they wanted me to be a bass player so when I was old enough, they put a toy in my hands and they would play. I would just bounce up and down and strum along too. But the coolest thing about it again is it wasn’t about the instrument. I was learning to play music, not an instrument. And I continue that hopefully today.
Again, what I did know was I knew what it meant when my brother opened up his high hat at the end of a four-bar phrase. Or I learned these phrases versus that phrase. The same way a baby knows what it means when the mother raises the pitch of her voice, versus the father lowering the pitch of his. You know these things, and even though you may not even understand what the word means. And so you’re learning all these things.
By the time a baby can speak a real word, they know already a lot about the language. So I was learning music the same way. By the time I had the instrument in my hands, I was already very musical.
When I turned about three years old, Reggie took two strings off of one of his six string guitars. He took the two high strings off and that became my first real instrument. So Reggie actually started teaching me to put my finger in certain places to produce notes, to songs I already knew.
So I wasn’t starting from the beginning. I was musical first. Now, I just had to put that music through an instrument. And looking back on it now I realize that’s how I learned to talk. It wasn’t about learning the instrument first. Who cares about the instrument you talk with? It’s about what you have to say.
And so I’ve always made musically maintain my own voice. I’ve always had something to say. And I’ve learned how to speak through my instrument. So if we think about a couple of things not being forced to practice, not being told what you have to say when I’m speaking English again, not being told what you have to say. When a teacher teaches you a new word in English, she has you put it into a sentence in the context right away. A music teacher would tell you to go practice it. Practicing works, but it’s a slower process than putting it into context. And we know that with English. And so this was the way I learned.