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Greg Lyons

Masterclass 3

- for Listeners & Musicians

The Groove - Courtesy of Greg Lyons

Slow Motion: The camera focuses on his face. It seems an energetically happy face, relaxed and watching an event unfold with keen interest. Then an extra alertness comes into his eyes, his focus seems to be on something moving and as he watches it – still with the same relaxed joy – he seems to coil like a spring and then his whole body leaps, face suddenly contorted in a grimace of impact. The camera pulls back, and we see the ball and the side of his head make brief contact, the ball then continuing on an altered trajectory right into the corner of the net.

The above description is of the Brazilian footballer Ronaldo, during a game 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 make Ronaldo such an outstanding footballer. It was as if the goal was pre-ordained. 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 often used in music. 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 unshakeable 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. In my experience as a teacher, I often come across students who seem to have no groove. In the case of saxophonists, and other instrumentalists not normally included as part of the rhythm section, this is sometimes exacerbated 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 sit in the groove 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 would suggest getting into playing drums or congas or bass. I often 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 gives them a chance to develop a relationship with the groove, focused only on the rhythm and fitting in. No thought of notes or scales or the latest patterns they’re working on. Another helpful exercise is to practice with recordings, playing an appropriate rhythmic pattern on a percussion instrument. In some cases 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 gut-feeling or instinctive 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, but it happened as part of a general evolution that was the result of developing the confidence to express themselves. I have seen plenty more 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 them right, are the product of our attitudes and not our technique or knowledge.

Like Ronaldo, if we could all just get rid of the mental chatter and focus on what the moment requires of us, we’d be able to fit into our environment – whether a football game or a group performance of music – with total synchronisation. We'd be connected with what the cosmos wants to happen
- viz. connected to the Groove.

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Last modified: 18/02/2012