Bassists, the stereotype goes, are quiet types. And when Grammy winner Victor Wooten gave the keynote at the annual Liberal Arts Symposium April 8, he didn't raise his voice. But his words silenced the room.
The symposium, Berklee's 17th, also included performances of Wooten's compositions and the winning entries in this year's Songwriting for Social Change contest.
Speaking without notes or a plan to a truly packed crowd in the David Friend Recital Hall, Wooten took a meandering and unexpected route that started with the role of human uniqueness and went surprising places. His book The Music Lesson is required reading in Berklee's Artistry, Creativity, and Inquiry Seminar, a liberal arts course for first-semester students.
"I learned as a child from my mom that we all have something to offer," he said. "Everyone has an individual fingerprint that's never been on the planet."
From that simple philosophy unfurled a radically simple theory about teaching: do less.
The role of any teacher, Wooten said, is to bring out a student's inner knowledge and voice. "I can't implant it in their head for them. All I can do is show it," he said.
"I don't even know what I'm talking about," he added, not entirely kidding.
In Wooten's life, that learning process happened naturally. His family already played music before he came on the scene. "My brothers knew that they needed a bass player to complete the family band," he joked.
So no one taught him music to start with. They just gave little Victor a toy guitar and set up a chair for him to strum along. Eventually Wooten's brother set up an old guitar with just a couple of strings. He learned phrasing, expression, rhythm, and all the other underpinnings of music before he learned notes and chords.
Wooten, a father of four, compared the process to how babies learn to speak. "No one sat you down and made you practice. . . . You never were told you were a beginner. When you made a mistake no one corrected you, and"—he flashed a smile—"you're allowed to jam with the professionals from day one."
That's how we should teach music, he said. Not through drills or abstractions. "A child playing air guitar always has a smile on its face. You 'teach' them something, the smile goes away." Showing a student the finger positions for the C-major scale before they know a song in C is "like teaching a kid to say 'apple' when they've never eaten one. It does work; it's just slower."
Before he stopped, the bassist expanded his focus even more to share a larger vision of how music can and should function in the world—not as a selfish display of pyrotechnics, but as a force for good. "My mom used to say, what does the world need with another good bass player?" Wooten said. "I actually do believe [music] will make the world a better place."
The next time you practice, he suggested, think about how that act will affect the world. "I guarantee you, your practicing will change, your music will change, and the world will change. But if we're doing it just to benefit us. . ." He smiled at the dead-silent audience and said, in words all the more cutting for being casual, ". . . much success to you."
The speech sent students away with a larger vision of the role of art—as the Liberal Arts Department aims to do.