When I was in high school, I met Victor Wooten at a tattoo parlor on the other side of town. For those of you who don’t know, Victor Wooten is a Grammy-award winning American bass player. He is one of the most talented musicians I’ve ever had the pleasure to see perform live. He is also one of the most genuine, humble musicians I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet.
When my friend called me to say, “Victor Wooten is jamming with people at a tattoo shop!” it took some convincing for me to even believe what he was saying. As I was rushing to leave the house, I slid the bridge off my cello and sped across town. Lo and behold, Victor Wooten was behind one of the counters, talking about music and life, and jamming with random people who asked to play with him.
One woman who asked to play grabbed the second electric bass from its stand and said, “Please keep in mind, I’m just a beginner.”
Wooten replied, “Don’t worry. So am I.”
Wooten began playing bass at age two. By the time he was six years old, he and his brothers were performing in their family band. He and the rest of the Wooten Brothers Band performed countless shows as they grew up together until Victor met Bela Fleck and joined The Flecktones. Victor Wooten is one of the last persons on Earth I’d call a beginner.
Wooten and the woman played a funky cover of “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder. When they finished, Wooten went on to explain that, because he always thinks of himself as a beginner, he is constantly learning and evolving.
I left that evening with Wooten’s signature on the bridge I took from my cello and a new perspective on what it means to be a beginner.
As a teenager and young adult, I attended many open mic nights at coffee shops and bars. I even ran an open mic at a local restaurant and encouraged fledgling musicians to get in front of a microphone. When I was in my mid-twenties, I was performing at an open mic every week, and the owner asked if I could start the evening with a 30-minute set before calling other names to the stage from his roster. Even though I knew I was capable of leaving open mics behind, I still felt drawn to them. The joint experience of performing and listening as a beginner can be life-changing, and I’ve never learned so much about being a genuine performer than on makeshift stages shoved in the backs of restaurants or in the audience, witnessing artists cultivate their crafts.
Given these experiences, it’s no surprise that I consider myself a lifelong learner.
I will never consider myself finished or complete. As a teacher, I show my students how I am still learning and improving myself—as a teacher, of course, but also as a human being. I freely admit my setbacks and explain, with fervor, what I’m currently learning, studying, practicing, or exploring. I do this to build a natural curiosity in my students but to also instill this idea of being unfinished.
I tell my students that, when you give yourself permission to remain unfinished, you open yourself up to so many opportunities to learn—about yourself, others, and the world around you. You also open yourself up to evolve and move onto a new part of your life you had never imagined for yourself. But when you settle for your current amount of skill, knowledge, or experience, you close yourself off from your ability to thrive.
Photograph © Andrés Nieto Porras Some Rights Reserved