There’s a groove - a way of moving, a kind of dance - in all the music we make.
Can you tap into it? Can you feel it? Can you move along with it?
For me, the great joy of music practice is that it offers freedom from the rigidity and narrowness of the thinking mind. By ‘thinking’ I mean the running commentary of thoughts we have about what is happening now, what has happened in the past, or what might happen in the future, but all with a tendency towards negative judgement. Psychologists refer to this as the mind’s ‘negativity bias’. It makes sense that our thinking naturally inclines towards caution or even, as I so often find in myself, imagining the worst. Being ‘on guard’ in this way is an obvious protective mechanism: if this is our default, we’re ready and alert for any potential danger that may arise unexpectedly.
However, if we stay in this mode when it isn’t necessary to be that way, our whole experience of life can be tainted with a slight shadow of negativity. We can end up over-cautious and inhibit our behaviour in ways that are subtle but still quite impactful. We may limit our speech, stick to more rigid daily routines, and keep our bodies still and tight to avoid risk. This mode is also the bedrock for an over-activated self-criticism or blaming of others, or generally feeling separate and alone. It can also lead us towards anxiety, worry and stress.
The great power of the arts and sports - indeed, perhaps all kinds cultural pursuit - is that they offer an escape from the day-to-day thinking-doing-worrying-stressful mind. They take us ‘out of ourselves’, help us relax and so open our minds to more spontaneity and fresh insight.
Movement seems to be central to this process. When we make music, dance, act, take part in sports, or even cook or paint or make things for their own sake, we move very differently compared to how we move when we’re ‘thinking’ - which we do most of the time. Depending on the activity, our gestures may be much bigger than usual, much wider and take up more space, or they may equally be much smaller and more nuanced. Similarly, we may move much faster in some artistic or sporting exercise, or we may end up moving much slower than usual.
As we move in these different ways, we may also notice that our ‘thinking mind’ quietens somewhat. I wonder whether the different kinds of movement require extra mental energy, meaning there is less available for our habitual thought patterns. In turn, we allow ourselves a kind of rest bite in the mind.
In my own music-making and teaching, I’ve witnessed on a daily basis the transition people make from a slightly tense body coupled with anxious thinking at the start of a practice session, performance or music lesson, to a much more relaxed physical state coinciding with more creative thinking after just a short time engaging in musical activity. This is one of the fundamental reasons music-teaching can be so rewarding: you can visibly observe the physical and mental release in people, which leads to greater well-being and a flourishing of creativity.
Having said that, I’ve also found that it’s easy to approach musical activity in our ‘thinking-doing-worrying’ mind. I’ve pointed to this before in other writings, with suggestions on how to break out of the cage of our thinking and release our natural spontaneity, curiosity and insight.
Conscious movement offers us another ‘way out’ of thinking, or indeed ‘way in’ to enjoyment through music, depending on how you look at it.
The practice is to find a way of moving that seems to fit naturally with the musical activity. It’s like there is a kind of movement that ‘the music’ is asking us to follow in order for ‘it’ to be fully realised. Our job is to listen closely to our bodies and see how they ‘want to respond’ to the music in any moment. There is a ‘groove’ in the music, like I said at the start of this article, and we just have to fall into it.
It is difficult to describe this process exactly in words, and my lessons involve experimenting with students to find the right kinds of movement for practising any given element of music, to help them ‘feel the groove’. Often I ask the question: ‘How does your body want to be right now in response to the music?’ If we’re used to conceiving our body movements as flowing from the control tower of our brain, it might be strange to think of the body having a say in things without or against mental efforts.
The truth is I don’t really know - and I don’t think we as humans really know - what is happening here on a mechanical level. My experience, however, is that the question above acts as a kind of trigger or reminder for me to experiment with different kinds of movements.
When we find the ‘right’ movement for the music, when we ‘fall into the groove’, so to speak, there is a feeling of enhanced physical freedom and ease. Mentally, too, we may feel a lot happier.
What’s more, and what I’ve noticed time and time again, our technical ability can really improve very quickly at this point.
I have my own example from this morning, even. There’s a rhythm-training practice I like to do to keep up my ability to tap out intricate patterns with both hands. It helps for my lessons and for my own music performances if I’m rhythmically ‘on the ball’, so I have a little book of exercises I try to keep to each day. I came to the last exercise in the chapter, which was noticeably more detailed than the previous examples. Initially, I attempted to tap out the patterns, but stumbled somewhat.
Taking notice of my body, I felt I was ever-so-slightly tight in my frame. I also became aware of my thinking: fleeting soundbites of ‘this isn’t good enough’, ‘other people are better at this’, ‘you should be good at this’.
So I asked myself : “How do I want to move to this music?” In that moment, I allowed my body to become less straight and upright, and more rounded in my arms and shoulders. I felt larger in some way. And I leaned-in closer to the page, so I was more engaged with the notes. I found myself imagining I was performing on stage, so that my facial expressions took on a kind of lively character that I felt mirrored the energy of the rhythmic exercise. I also got a sense of the pulse throughout my whole body, so that I was slightly dancing along to the beat.
This, for me, is what being ‘in the groove’ feels like. It’s a whole-body and mind experience, in which all my movements and thinking are in line with the music. Because I’ve practised this many times, it only took a short while to get into that frame of experience. So if you try this for yourself and struggle to ‘connect’, just know that it takes time to relax and loosen up in the way that it needed here. But keep going.
The main finding from this little musical moment today, was that I shifted from both not enjoying the exercise so much and not being very adept at it, to really enjoying it and observing my technical ability markedly improve.
The ‘key’ here was moving with the music, finding its ‘groove’ and allowing the body to respond in a natural way.
So when you’re doing your practice, ask yourself: ‘How does my body want to be right now?’ … ‘How can my body move in order to mirror the pulse, character and feel of the music I’m playing?’
I hope you find that ‘getting into the groove’ gives you a greater sense of freedom in your playing and singing and composing.
I wish you a happy music practice.