Basser Instincts: Language Learning

HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL! TWO LETTERS caught my eye as the calendar advanced to 2013.
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HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL! TWO LETTERS caught my eye as the calendar advanced to 2013.

Jon wrote, “I would like to discuss groove. In his video Groove Workshop [Hudson Music, 2008], Victor Wooten discusses music as a language, a concept we would all agree with. Vic points out that during our first few years of existence, we humans learn our first language not in class or in lessons but by being exposed to “professional” speakers. We, in effect, get thrown into the groove from the very start. We learn by grooving. Vic extrapolates this approach to music, wherein he says that the best way to learn is by grooving. I tend to agree.

“In addition, he mentions that he’s almost always grooving when he practices. However, he is Victor Lemonte Wooten, and the rest of us mere mortals can only hope to achieve a fluency like his. Just my two cents.”

Hi, Jon. I agree with Victor’s assessment of music as a language. My thought is, knowing that music is a language isn’t going to help you to improve in that language. Everybody knows music is a language, but knowing this can’t make you a better player. As an example, math also is a language, but knowing that it is doesn’t help you to learn it.

Let’s discuss language for a moment. If learning a language by ear from birth is such a beneficial method (which it is), notice that everyone who learned this way eventually goes to school to learn it academically. Remember Appalachian Mountain history, the hill people or hillbillies? They learned the English language by ear from birth, but didn’t have the benefit of a follow-up academic education. As a result, these people were illiterate and barely functional in the spoken language. Similarly, many musicians who learn how to play only by ear are mostly musically illiterate and barely functional as players. How can you play with feel or groove if you don’t know how your instrument works? And if you do know how your instrument works, and if music content isn’t of any interest to you, then what are you paying money to learn? Write me and let me know at the address below.

If you sincerely believe music is a language, then learn it like one. If every language in every discipline is learned academically, then music must be learned the same way.

Finally, regarding groove: Everyone can groove if they know how to play, practically without exception. I can prove this anytime, with anyone, anywhere. Groove is your automatic reward for learning how to play well. Groove doesn’t require any special attention, certainly no more attention than any other facet of learning music requires. To prove this, I invite readers to send me the names of established bass players who you feel can play but who cannot groove. I predict you’ll have a very short list. If almost every good bassist can groove and none of them acquired this skill via lessons or a school, then how did they learn how to groove? Answer: They learned on their own and for free. Remember this well!

Oscar S. wrote, “From all that you say in your columns, don’t you think you’re trying too hard to convince people to learn music? What if they don’t want to learn music? What if they just like to own a bass and play it?”

Hi Oscar. I agree with you that many bass players aren’t interested in learning about music. But the people who spend money to improve are the people I’m addressing when I say that academic music is the only 100% guaranteed method to help you to improve as a player. I can prove anywhere, anytime, that academic factual music lessons, or as I like to call it, the “Right Stuff ,” is the only foolproof way to become a better player, if you decide to pay someone to help you play better. If you aren’t learning academic music, then I believe you aren’t learning anything worthy of the money you invested to learn. The ironic truth is this: The electric bass world would benefit if teachers focused on music instead of performance-type lessons, which don’t benefit their students. Everyone can perform eventually. It is only the bassists who haven’t learned how to play who are stumped in their groove, their feel, or their time.

I will end this by asking you a question: When you spend money to help yourself improve as a player, what do you expect to get out of your investment? Write me with your answers, as well as any other questions or comments you may have, at, and I will include your thoughts in upcoming articles. Thanks for reading.



Since establishing himself as a jazz and fusion cornerstone with Bill Bruford, Allan Holdsworth, John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham, and Yes, Jeff Berlin has released eight solo albums and founded the Players School of Music in Clearwater, Florida. He is currently finishing his latest solo recording, as well as a trio CD with Scott Henderson and Dennis Chambers.


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