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by Greg Lyons
If you’ve ever watched the Brazilian football team play in the world cup then you will have seen a display of some of the most natural
athletes on the planet. I remember one goal in particular scored from a corner kick by a header from Ronaldo where the whole thing
seemed to have such a natural flow that it was almost like music. It was during a game I watched at the 2002 World Cup – which Brazil
won. I have used it before and will continue to use it as a great example of what I call Groove. The Brazilians have it in abundance, but to
have it and combine it with such skills of timing and co-ordination are what made Ronaldo such an outstanding footballer.
It was as if the goal was preordained. That all he needed to do was be in tune with the cosmos and everything would fit into place. That he
could be so completely relaxed in such a vital moment that he could put all his skills into achieving that goal, shows remarkable
confidence in his own abilities, and in his team, and in the inability of anyone else from stopping it from happening.
Groove is a term I often use in music. Some call it “swing” (It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Aint Got That………..). In the simplest
understanding of it, groove refers to a steady beat and our ability to synchronize to each other’s beat when playing in a group. To those
that have it, it needs no explanation, but to those that have trouble with it, it’s a very hard thing to define. You can practice diligently with a
metronome and not develop it, though you may develop unshakable “time”.
To me groove in the broad sense is defined as the ability to be sensitive to every message that your environment is giving you. You are in
tune with the universe, the room, your fellow players, the audience, your instrument, the piece you’re playing, your role in the group, your
purpose in being there at all, and what you are trying to bring to the performance. To do all this you must be relaxed. To be relaxed, you
must be completely prepared for everything you might have to deal with.
The bottom line for a musician is: how deeply can you listen?
In my experience as a teacher, I often come across students who seem to have no groove. These are often musicians at a high level of
accomplishment through a classical training but who somehow can’t lock into a rhythm with a group to save their lives. A lot of the
problem with this type of musician is caused by a disproportionate reliance on information received by the eyes – their performance of
what they play has been learned and is governed by what they are reading – not what they hear.
In the case of many saxophonists, other horn players, vocalists and other instrumentalists not normally included as part of the rhythm
section, lack of groove is to a certain extent explained by not having spent any of their focus on holding groove together. Unless they go
out of their way to work on it, there would be little opportunity to just lock in and be part of the rhythm section in the same way a drummer or
bassist would. Most rhythm section players spent the majority of their playing time accompanying – playing a functional rhythmic role in
the group before they get into the possibilities of playing other parts.
For this type of problem, I often suggest getting into playing drums or congas or bass. I sometimes refer these students to the hand-drum
class of a friend of mine where they join in a large group, each one playing a part – according to their level of ability – in the overall
repeating rhythmic figure. This eliminates all other agendas and the player is forced to listen to the overall rhythmic pulse in order to be a
useful part of it. They quickly discover that if they focus too much attention on their own part, they lose contact with the overall pulse. There
are now many Samba Schools around the world in almost every country, always willing to include new members with any level of ability.
This is a fantastic opportunity with little skill to be part of a great sound.
In some cases however the problem is more deep-rooted. It is one of my theories that this may be the result of a less developed sensual
awareness. For social or cultural reasons some people do not develop a confidence in their own gut-feeling or instinctive reactions. This I
believe can undermine our response to rhythm. It is somehow connected to those basic animal instincts that perhaps our societies make
us feel less than proud of.
How does one work on this? Go for therapy? I have seen one or two of those seemingly hopeless cases actually learn to groove, and it
happened as part of a general evolution that was the result of developing the confidence to express themselves. I have seen others just
give up. It kind of depends – once again – on passion. How much you’re into music and what part it plays in your life. Many things in
music that seem like we never quite manage to get right are the product of our attitudes and not our technique or knowledge.
For a musician, we will never be truly free to express ourselves in a group context unless we unlock our sensual awareness of our
environment and through that develop a contribution to that environment and eventually confidence in our own responses. We have to
learn to listen to our environment and to play our part almost as if we ourselves are only responding to what the situation calls for.