An Interview With Anthony Wellington
Though he learned bass without taking lessons, Anthony Wellington has become one of the most renowned and respected bass and music educators. Through teaching at virtually every bass camp and Bassology, his own Maryland-based bass studio, Wellington teaches about 100 students per week.
Although Wellington views himself as an educator first, it’s no wonder that Wellington’s passion and dedication has paid off in the realm of performing. In 1999, bass virtuoso Victor Wooten hired him as his bass tech, sound engineer and stage manager, but quickly invited him to play in the band – a gig and friendship that has lasted ever since.
In between classes at Gerald Veasley’s Bass Bootcamp, we got to sit down with Wellington and get his takes on the camp, Bassology, the benefits and detriments of higher music education, online lessons, and his upcoming album.
How many camps have you done?
I’ve been doing camps since 2000. Victor [Wooten]’s first camp was in 2000, and at first we were doing two a year. Then he bought his own campsite and now we’re doing four or five a year, if not more. One of the guys who was a camper at Victor’s camp attended Gerald’s camp and recommended me as a teacher to Gerald. So Gerald has been bringing me in for the last four years, whenever I’m not out on the road. He schedules his camp around the [Berks] Jazz Festival, and I think one year I was on the road with Victor, so I didn’t get the chance to do it. But basically three or four years. I love doing the camps.
What’s your favorite part?
Well, my instruction at Bassology is all private lessons, so I’m used to sitting down with somebody one-on-one, and I like that and I prefer that, but it’s good to be able to do something different. It’s a different set of chops as a teacher to speak to a large group, because now you have to find a way to reach everybody, like the slowest person in the class and the fastest person in the class. You have to find a way to make that person and that other person walk out of there and say, “that was a good class.” It’s hard to do, so I like the challenge of it as a teacher. And bass players just have a camaraderie that’s cool that you don’t see with guitar players and drummers.
I’ve noticed that, especially at this camp. What is it that makes this such a tight-knit community?
I think it’s that the environment of the camp stems from the fact that there is a bass playing community that’s different from guitarists and drummers. I mean, the camps can work just because of that, but I think a lot of it is because of the fact that the instrument is so young and so new that we’re writing and creating the curriculum and we’re helping each other do that, whereas the curriculum for piano and guitar have been around so long, people have secret methods, and they’re not into sharing, so good guitar players don’t want to show you their method. They try to steal yours.
With bass players, we’re so new that we all have to take responsibility for writing this curriculum. Like, “hey, this what I’m doing, this is what you’re doing. Let’s mix them together and see what we come up with.”
I think it’s kind of that vibe. And the other thing is that I think instruments attract personalities. To be attracted to the role of the bass is kind of a fatherly role. A lot of times that role is that you want to take care of things. Our job is to make other people look good. Our job is to lift up the singer the same way a dad would lift up his kid to make sure his kid looks good. If you have the personality where you want to be the center of attention, the instrument won’t attract you, and if you have the personality where you just want to beat on stuff, the instrument won’t attract you. But if you have the mentality of “I don’t mind being in the background to serve this really important role that people will overlook, that is the most important role in the band that gets overlooked.” So it attracts those people who are fine with that.
Tell us about what you do in your sessions at the Bass Boot Camp.
Usually I’ll map something the day before. A lot of times I’ll come up with concepts for myself. Almost every teaching concept I’ve come up with is stuff I come up with to improve my own playing, and then I test it out on students at Bassology. And then if I think it’s a lesson that is conducive to a group environment, I’ll do it at the camps. So sometimes certain lessons which are great for private, one-on-one instruction don’t cross over well, and sometimes they do. As for the lesson I did today, I’ve been focusing more on reaction time and how fast you can respond to a given situation, which is what happens in music. So I’ve been doing a lot of timing exercises, and it’s something that translates well for group lessons. Even though I might demonstrate with one person, the group can see it and take note within themselves of where they are, and hopefully work on it. So that’s what I’ve been working on for this camp: how to shorten people’s reaction times by their knowledge base and how well they know the instrument and music theory.
What kind of responses have you been getting from the campers.
I usually get really good responses from the students because they don’t usually get the kind of lessons I give. They get really good instruction and there are good instructors here, but they are typical lessons, like “this is a scale,” “this is a mode,” “this is a pentatonic,” and it’s all good and I teach that stuff too, but I can see the look on people’s faces and know that they have never had anyone time them doing something. That gets a really good response because they might be at a point where they need an additional challenge other than playing the modes in broken thirds or rhythmically displacing pentatonic. The good thing about the timing exercises is that you can always get a better time. Like if you run track, you can always shave seconds off of your time. Campers always say, “I never thought to do that, that’s such a great exercise,” or “that’s such a great way to look at things,” and that’s one of the reasons Gerald hires me. He says that my approach to teaching is not conventional. It’s stuff that’s logical and efficient, but people don’t think to do.
It seems like you’re always kind of tweaking the lessons too.
Yeah, you have to. It’s like running tests. You test out a lesson, and then you see that you need to add this, or need to take this away from it, or modify it this way in this situation specifically. So you’re always tweaking the lessons.
That’s pretty refreshing because there are a lot of guys who are the greatest players but have been teaching so long that they get burnt out, and then things become formulaic, though it doesn’t fit for everybody.
Sometimes people fall out of love with the process of teaching. Teaching becomes mundane to them and no matter how good the information, even if it’s relevant, that interaction won’t be good. If you do a nice thing for the wrong reason, people still see that too. I think sometimes that happens with teachers, but mostly I find that happens with teachers who aren’t really teachers first. There are people who play an instrument well who have a knowledge base and teach, not because they want to teach but because it’s a way to make money in between gigs. But to me, that’s not a true teacher, no matter how much information you’re in possession of, you have to want to teach first.
Even though I’ve got a lot of gigs and I own a recording studio, I always think of myself as an educator first. So I think people always see that enthusiasm from me when I teach, because I turn down gigs to teach, and most musicians do the opposite. I do it because I like having a curriculum to share and it’s given me a brand, the “Bassology” brand. I like having a brand, because most teachers don’t have a brand… it’s just this teacher or that teacher. But now people say “I want to study at Bassology”.
That’s an important thing to me, even though I get to play with Victor, which is also important, to me even more important is to establish my brand. One day he might decide that he doesn’t want to be on the road anymore, so I can’t have the brand that I think of as Anthony be associated with another artist. Now I have a brand that is associated strictly with me, and that’s refreshing and rewarding for me.
What is it about teaching that you love so much?
When I started playing, I never had a teacher, never had a lesson. So I got good from playing songs by learning by ear. I could figure out songs fast, even challenging songs fast, but I never really knew intellectually what I was doing. And worse than that, I didn’t know that I didn’t know what I was doing. So you can be what I refer to as unconscious: you’re not even aware of what you’re not aware of.
So you just kind of squander in this weird place for a long time until somebody in some situation makes you aware of things you aren’t aware of. At that point, you make a choice to either become knowledgable or just keep doing what it is that you’re doing. Hopefully people make the choice to become knowledgable, but I never had a bass lesson, but I always wanted to know that my relationship with music and my relationship with the bass is important.
If I use the word “relationship” to describe what I have with music and bass, the best thing that a person can do in any relationship is know as much as you can about the thing that you’re in a relationship with. So because I say “I love the bass”, part of the responsibility of loving anything is knowing as much as you can. When a man and a woman love each other, that means they know things about each other that other people aren’t likely to know. It’s a good idea for him to know her birthday, anniversary date, and so on. That’s part of the responsibility, and you have that same responsibility when you’re in a relationship with music and bass. The relationship is going to better if you know the notes on your bass, the notes in every key. The relationship is just going to be better. It’s never going to be worse.
I have this saying I use with my students: “Knowing something is always better than not knowing something.” I can’t think of a circumstance where not knowing something will ever be better than knowing something, even if I was dying. I would rather know than not know. To me, just knowing is better than not knowing. So if it’s true in a situation like that, it’s definitely true for playing music, you know? [laughs]
How important do you think a higher education situation is for anyone that wants to be a musician?
I think higher education is important for a lot of reasons. One of the most important reasons is networking. I know so many of my students who have graduated from Berklee and Miami who just have this vast network, and I point that out because that’s something I wasn’t good at when I was in school. I’m starting to get in touch with those guys now, but I’m seeing kids come out of Berklee, and they keep in touch with each other so when a gig opening becomes available in LA, they contact their network on Facebook and then they keep the gigs in the house. I think that’s a cool thing to do. I’m not saying keep the gigs in the house, but just being able to refer somebody that you know to a gig, and I see that happening a lot so I think that there’s a networking aspect to higher education that people overlook.
One of the other aspects, which I’ve talked to my students about, is that I’m not a big believer in majoring in performance or majoring in your instrument. That’s a student’s first inclination, and that was my first inclination, but I think in hindsight a better degree is something technical or something educational. I always recommend that students either study music management or music business or music education, or something technical like recording engineering. When you get to the college level, you should be proficient on your instrument. You shouldn’t be going to college to learn how to play bass. It’s just like if you want to play basketball for a college team. You don’t go to that college to learn how to play basketball, you should already be a good basketball player and then your skills get refined. But you’re really not being introduced to basketball there, so I think those parallels are true. You go to school to refine your skills, but they should be proficient enough that you can study something that can really benefit you. When playing is slow, if you know how to run a recording studio or you can teach at a university level or you can run lights or do something in business management, you can still make a living. If your focus is just on playing an instrument, you might be shortchanging yourself.
Have you ever thought about teaching at a college?
That’s actually my ultimate goal. I want to be a tenured professor at a college, but not some big grandiose university like Berklee or the University of Miami. I’d rather do it at a small college like St. Mary’s College in St. Mary’s, Maryland. Somewhere close to water and mountains that is peaceful. And I’d like to find a college that has a classical music program but doesn’t have a popular music program, and I’d like to start it there. I’d like to find a school and start a popular music program and start my own program. That’s how I want to spend the latter years of my life. I don’t want to have to do road work unless I want to do it. I’d rather do this, and I still want to keep Bassology. I have plans on getting that accredited, so when people are taking bass at a university they can do their lessons with me instead of some grad assistant at the university. But I’d love to teach at a university level.
So you have close to a hundred students a week, right?
That’s just counting the students at Bassology. If I counted my students in Philly and York, Skype students, and Music Dojo students, it would be way more than that. But just at Bassology, I always seem to have between 85 and 100 students a week. I really don’t want to do that many, but I just don’t like turning people away. If the slot is open, I don’t mind taking that student. I think I have available to me 117 half-hour slots, six days a week from 9 in the morning until late in the evening. It’s my place and I’ve got the key, so I can use it as much as I want, even on Sundays which I usually save for out-of-town students. So that’s just counting Bassology students, not those who come from out-of-town, and you know, whatever. But I like the work load.
What do you see as the biggest issue for developing bassists?
I think one of the things is getting good information. One of the things that happens with teachers is that we automatically assume that somebody who plays well understands what they are doing. If you think about all the musicians in the world… actually that’s a lot. If you think about all the musicians in the country… actually that’s a lot. Let’s think about all the musicians in the state of Virginia… that’s still a lot.
If you take every musician in the state of Virginia and you ask yourself, “are most of these people formally trained, or not?”, you’re going to find that most of them are not professional, they’re hobbyists. So most of the musicians that exist on the planet are hobbyists, including most teachers. Most people who are teaching aren’t formally trained, so what they end up doing a lot of times is passing on their misunderstandings of music. Someone might teach somebody an A7 with a #9. If you ask them what the #9 is, that teacher who can play that chord really well might call that note a C, and teach it to that student because that’s the location they see on the instrument. The note is actually B#, but if they haven’t studied formally they won’t know that. Because they play well, people are going to respect what they say and when people respect what they say, they take the word as gospel and then spread that.
So wrong information continually gets spread because we hear people who we admire and respect say things that really aren’t correct, then we just pass it on. So that’s one of the things I see, where people hook up with teachers that aren’t that knowledgable and haven’t studied enough but they just play well. One of my responsibilities that I’ve taken on is wading through that misinformation and trying to correct it to the degree that I can. I’m also careful not to pass on my misunderstandings because I don’t know everything either, but I don’t have the ego attached to what I do. One of the things that happens when a teacher has ego attached to what they do is that when the student asks a question, even if they don’t know the answer they’ll give an answer just to sound educated. A lot of times they’ll give the wrong answer. If a student asks me something I don’t know the answer to, I’ll say “I don’t know the answer to that right now, but I’ll get back to you. I’ll check some resources, I’ll check online, I’ll do something, I’ll get back with you.”
Because I don’t want to misinform somebody and if I think of myself as someone who is trying to clean up this mess, I can’t contribute to the mess. But so many people would just give an answer just so it can seem like they know everything. To me, if I was a student, that would be the first thing that scared me. If this guy tried to pass off that he knows everything.
Tell us a little bit about our studio.
Bassology is in Waldorf, Maryland, which is about 16 miles southeast of Washington, D.C. I’m fortunate enough to be close to the D.C. area, and there are a lot of great bass players around D.C., so there’s no shortage of students. I really wanted to create an environment that was conducive to learning. I find that most people who study a popular instrument like bass guitar are either getting lessons at music stores or somebody’s house. There’s nothing wrong with studying with somebody who knows his stuff in any setting, but generally I find that people who teach at music stores are just gigging musicians who teach to supplement their income and not because they are informed or good teachers or whatever. So that’s where a bulk of the music lessons are coming from.
I wanted to do something to separate myself from being what I call a “music store teacher,” but I didn’t want to teach at my house, though I could have to save money. To me, that can come across as being unprofessional. Even if it’s a great teacher and player, teaching out of your house can lend itself to an unprofessional vibe. Just like if someone is running a store. If they have their business in a storefront, it looks more professional than if they run it from their basement, even if it’s as good.
So for me, I realized that not many bass teachers were opening their own office and I knew that would give me credibility from the top. People would say, “this guy is so serious about teaching the bass that he opened an office whose only responsibility was to teach bass where other people would just try to get the slot that opened up at the music store.”
The other thing that happens at the music store is that they’re just filling slots up with bodies. There aren’t people who go in there specifically looking for this teacher. They ask “hey, do you have any openings for a bass teacher?”, and they’ll just put you with any bass teacher that has an opening. They don’t even try to pair you with the right teacher, or see if this is the right teacher for you.
Because I have this brand, this building, and this office, people specifically look for me, and I make a point not to advertise. Anybody who walks in my door has heard about me on their own and found out about me from other people or whatever.
That gives me a little bit more credibility: not teaching out of my house, having my own office, and not teaching out of a music store.
You started doing Skype lessons. Do you see that as the way lessons are going?
I’m not sure if it’s the way lessons are going. I like doing Skype lessons, but I don’t like them as much as a private one-on-one lesson. As a person who has been doing private lessons for 20 years, I like sitting across from somebody. The curriculum has to be modified, too, so I’m in the process of modifying the curriculum. One of the things you can’t do with the Skype technology is play at the same time, because there is time and video lag. You don’t notice if you’re just conversing, or somebody is listening to me, or I’m just listening to somebody. But if I put on a metronome on my end and I play to it and a student tries to play to it, to himself he’ll be hearing it in time with the information coming from the screen, but for me, I’m hearing the delay. Because of that, I require students have either an accompaniment machine or a metronome on their end so I can hear them play to their own reference.
So when the technology or the bandwidth of the internet is big enough that there’s no time lag, it will start to approach what private, one-on-one live lessons are. So much of what you have to do as a teacher is give students the experience of playing with other people. We try to simulate that in a classroom, but you can’t simulate that with Skype. There are some personal, psychological things that don’t translate as well through the medium of a computer screen. If I’m in a room with somebody I can catch their vibe, how nervous they are, and I can sense all those things. But with that barrier in between, those are the things you can’t pick up on. It’s a little bit more informal. I hesitate to use the word cold, but there’s always a certain amount of detachment with Skype that you don’t have with someone sitting right across from you. You can grab their hand, spread their fingers out, stuff like that. But you’ll never get that.
I don’t think private lessons are disappearing, but the big advantage of Skype lessons over private lessons is that you can teach to people in Africa, Egypt, Canada… I did a lesson with a guy in Belgium. So financially, it opens up a whole new world, but also just as a teacher, I know that I’m reaching people everywhere. Then I know that what I do is helping people in Belgium, and it’s just great. The D.C. area is no longer my only market. The whole world can be. And I have a pretty elaborate setup. For me, it couldn’t just be just sitting in front of a computer screen, so I have certain gear that makes the Skype lesson better so everything is line in. Nothing is over the air on my end, meaning you’re not hearing my amp through a speaker. I plug my metronome, accompaniment machine and bass into this mixer that goes line out into the computer. Then the speaker out of the computer goes into the mixer so I’m hearing them through the headphones, so everything audio-wise is crystal clear. I suggest to students on Skype that you get the best setting they can. I use a backdrop because like I said, each lesson is a test and way for the format to grow. So when I do a lesson and I see kids running around in the background or the wife walking around in slippers and robe on, it makes me conscious of the fact that if I want it to be professional, it has to be professional all the way around. I’m not going to be any less professional because I’m doing a Skype lesson, so I have a backdrop so no matter what madness is going on in the room, you just see a backdrop. It’s a traveling setup that stays in a suitcase, so even when I’m on tour or doing camps I can do Skype lessons on my own. I can reach everybody. That’s the great thing about it. I’m available to do Skype lessons whenever I’m not doing private lessons or a gig. As long as there is Wi-Fi, I’m set up.
When are we going to get a solo album from you?
That’s probably going to be in the spring of 2012. Victor just started a record label, and we kind of talked lightly about me releasing my record on his label next year, which would be great for me because I wouldn’t have to do the whole “label search” thing. It’s somebody I know and trust. I’ve been working on my own records, not for the sake of a record, but I’ve been writing and recording songs for 20 years. I’ve owned a recording studio since ’85, but I’ve been busy helping people get their projects out.
I’ve been writing and building this catalog up of songs, so now I’m going to be more serious about trying to release something. I don’t really like to use the term “solo album,” because that makes it sound instrument specific. It almost sounds like Victor’s record, where he played all the bass parts. I think of solo records like that. I don’t even want it to be thought of as a bass record. It’s going to be a record full of songs. There are going to be R&B songs, funk songs, jazz-influenced songs, but it’s going to be a listening record. It’s not going to be a “playing” record, there’s not going to be a bass solo in every song. At most just one song. There won’t be a picture of a bass on the record. I won’t be trying to do a cool pose with a bass on the cover. The reason that I’m saying it is if that’s the way I’m marketing myself, then I’m already destined not to sell a lot of records because that demographic is small. If a keyboard player sees a record with a bass on it, he’s likely not to buy it because he kind of already has in his mind what he thinks he is going to hear.
So, I’m going to market myself as an artist and not a bass player. I’ll feature a lot of the guys I know. Great musicians like Victor or Dennis Chambers. I plan on featuring them to appeal to more people because my goal is to appeal to a lot of people and try to sell some records. If I sold a record to every bass player, it wouldn’t be enough. That wouldn’t make a dent, so I’m smart enough to know I can’t limit myself to a demographic of just bass players. I have to make it appeal to people who play other instruments and non-musicians. Artists who sing don’t think of records as being solo records- they’re just putting out a record. You’ll never hear Aretha Franklin say “I’m putting out a solo record.” But we get bass players and musicians saying “I’m gonna put out a solo record.”
So I’m not marketing it that way. I’m going to put out my record and I’ve got some songs that I’ve let people hear and they like it.
It’s not bass music, it’s just music.
It’s not bass music at all. Honestly, I don’t have those kind of chops. I’ve got chops, but I’m never going to put six tracks of bass together and have people be blown away. I’m never going to play a solo bass piece and just mesmerize people in a jaw-dropping way. I think I can do that in a musical way, where people will just be entertained by it, but I don’t have jaw-dropping chops and I’m not ashamed to say that. To me, it’s not the most important thing about being a musician. Stevie Wonder doesn’t have jaw-dropping chops on the piano, but he probably sells more records than any bass player we know. I’m not comparing myself to Stevie Wonder, but that’s how I’m thinking. I’m not trying to blow you away with physical dexterity. I’m just going to show you how musical I can be in the way that I can be.