"Boy, do I have a lot to learn!"
It's a quick read, but I don't think it's only for musicians. Wooten is a good writer of prose:it's very clear and entertaining, and at times humorous. At the heart of the book is a philosophy of music that can help young(and old) musicians. But unlike books like The Inner Game of Music or Effortless Mastery, this book is a parable, or a story which teaches a lesson. It's almost as if Wooten has written The Alchemist for music. (And for the record, I read The Alchemist-sure, I bought it in the airport bookstore-but I wasn't really impressed. Maybe Oprah should be talking about Wooten's book!)
Michael basically gives Victor sage advice on how to be a better musician instantly. One of the first things Michael teaches is that he has "nothing" to teach, that the student must learn for himself. As a primarily self taught jazz pianist, but also as a conservatory grad and a music teacher, this idea really hit home for me. This is a great way to approach learning: you can't understand any concept unless you literally "teach it to yourself". Even if someone "shows" it to you, the understanding has to come from you. No one can "make you" learn anything. So we are all essentially self-taught musicians.
Michael has some great ideas about the "elements" of music. "Many musicians like yourself struggle because you are not familiar enough with all the elements. You rely mostly on one or two of them when you play." Michael explains how most of us spend so much time with notes. Notes include "harmony, melody, re-harmonization,scales, modes, chords, key signatures..." and so forth. Then, he discusses the other nine elements: articulation, technique, feel, dynamics, rhythm, tone, phrasing, space, and listening. Michael's assertion is that we as music students and teachers spend too much time on one element, notes, at the expense of the nine others. Indeed, there are many who can "play the notes", but I believe that those who are truly great are the ones who address the other elements well. Why would you want to watch an actor who merely "knows the words"?
Another great pearl of wisdom is the notion of "practicing" music. Michael relates it to how you develop your language as a child. "Notice you did not develop your speaking technique through diligent practice, at least not the type of practice you are familiar with. Your parents didn't lock you in a room and make you work on it three hours a day, and they didn't make you take lessons. You learned to speak it through a natural process. Musicians could benefit from looking at this process." This is akin to "learning on the bandstand," as opposed to "practicing three hours a day."
The young Wooten meets some other prophetic characters on his journey. Eventually, Wooten sort of "becomes" Michael, and becomes a keeper of the flame of wisdom. I think this is part of maturity as a person:when you realize that you are your own teacher, you develop the confidence to make your own way. "There are no shoulds or shouldn'ts. There are only choices. What you choose next is up to you. No one can tell you what that is. You have been shown all you need to know." I think so many of us are afraid to make the choices. This book might encourage us to leave the fear behind.
I find myself talking philosophy with my students often. And many of my trumpet teachers would talk philosophy often in the lessons. Sometimes, talking was more helpful than playing. I think The Music Lesson is a revelatory philosophical wake-up call for any musician out there wanting to be inspired.