Victor Wooten Offers Lessons in Improvisation

Bass player Victor Wooten gives a clinic about the value of collaboration in performance. 

October 8, 2013

On the stage of David Friend Recital Hall, bass players Victor Wooten and Berklee's bass chair Steve Bailey joined drummer Derico Watson for a real-time improvisation workshop. They opened the afternoon clinic with an extemporaneous jam for an audience that hung on every note.

When they came up for air, Wooten clarified: “We’re not just jamming. We’re creating a song on the spot.”

Wooten, a five-time Grammy Award–winner and bass player for Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, gave the clinic the afternoon before his show in the Berklee Performance Center with Steve Bailey, and bassists Victor Bailey (an associate professor of bass at Berklee) and Berklee artist in residence John Patitucci.

The unrehearsed session generated multiple object lessons from Wooten. He encouraged students to do what the performers were doing, but emphasized that a key component to this sort of collaboration is focused listening to fellow musicians.

Conversely, musicians often concentrate on their own performances, a tendency that precludes a real conversation on stage, he said. “When we pick up an instrument, we tend to do all the talking.”

It’s important to make sure you leave spaces for other musicians to fill in, Wooten said. Indeed, he did that on the David Friend stage that day, and Steve Bailey waited for an opportunity for that space. "I waited for Victor to establish a form," Bailey said.

The same principle holds true for connecting with an audience.

“We (too often) play at our audience, not with them. We forget we’re supposed to connect with people, not play at them," Wooten said.

Wooten also talked about the importance of not sacrificing playing for over-practicing, how the mark of a good teacher is embracing learning, almost as a professional student; and how inspiration is everywhere.

“If you’re not inspired, your eyes are closed,” he said.