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Really Feeling A Groove: Further Adventures in Awareness Exercises

Feb 26 | Posted by: Robert Sabin |

What does it mean to feel a groove? Everyone has used that expression, but what is this experience?  To say we feel something refers to a physical sensation; whether it’s a groove or something emotional.  We don’t think we’re happy, we feel that were happy.  What do we feel when we’re grooving? What does it feel like to be really locked in?


Being aware of the physical mental and musical elements of a performance is one of the most rewarding elements of being a musician.  This type of awareness often begins by being able to listen.  Many musicians advise that students set aside time for these types of listening/awareness exercises.  These exercises can take the form of selecting a piece of music and simply listening to one element with all of your attention.  A great place to start with this would be the ride cymbal.   Listen to attract all the way through and keep your ear on the cymbal, like an aural spotlight.  If you get distracted and your ear wanders off (to perhaps the soloist, the melody, or the bassist) simply reorient your attention and put your ear back on the ride cymbal, not missing any notes that it plays.  When you can get through the whole track keeping your ear in one place try going back and doing it again this time keeping your ear on the ride cymbal and adding to the widening spotlight now the hi hat.  Continue this process adding the snare drum, bass drum, any comping instruments, the soloist, and finally last but not least the bassist.  (I’d like to do the bass last since that’s where my attention most naturally goes anyway.)


Gary Peacock advises a similar type of awareness exercises using parts of the body.  Before even playing a note simply sit or stand and do an inventory of the various parts of your body.  Check out your feet and just be aware of them.  You don’t necessarily have to change anything here, just be aware of how they feel.  If anything strange is happening there you’ll fix it before you even realize.  Next move your attention up into your legs and your pelvis.  Many of us develop bad habits physically, hyperextending our knees or shifting our weight disproportionately on one leg or another needlessly.  Continue this process into the lower back upper back shoulders the arms neck and finally the head until you can be aware of your entire body and any problems or tensions that have arisen.


We can take this idea step further and apply it to our groove.  As an experiment, try an awareness exercise using a walking bass line.    Set up a drum machine or a metronome or a great recording that you can play along with.  Walk a bass line in time along with the recording and be aware of the many physical sensations that are happening in your body.  Start with the part of your side that is in contact with the bass.  You should feel a thump right into your side as you play each quarter note.  This is the feeling of the air being pushed out of the base with each beat that you play.  Try to lock this thump in with the recording and be aware of how that sensation resonates in your torso.  Continue this process for an extended period of time and then add to this awareness any sensation of what’s going on in your feet.  This will work best if you’re not wearing shoes and your feet can’t have contact with the floor.  You should probably feel the fund of each quarter note coming down into the floor and up through your feet.  Listen very carefully at this point to what’s happening in the drums; not the cymbals.  If the drummer is feathering the bass drum this awareness can really help lock the bass line into the lowest drum.  This is very important, as the evolution of rhythm section playing began with the bass being fundamentally locked in with the bass drum, not the ride cymbal.  As you continue, try adding the awareness of the physical sensations of each beat within your low back and your spine.  If your posture is loose and flowing you will actually be able to feel the groove there.  Finally, move your awareness into your hands left-hand first.  Feel each finger going down in time and how much of the group that you’re playing is being produced by the articulation of your left hand.  Resist any urge to tighten up or to stress this hand.  Your left hand should be swimming; accurate detailed, articulate, and strong but not tight stressed or overworked.  Finally add the right hand.  Feel the balance of this hand and the effortless use of the arm weights to pull each of the strings.  You could also add parts of the body I didn’t mention; the head shoulders upper back your knees and so forth according to whatever physical issues you might be working through.


Is it incredible the amounts of sensations we can be aware of while playing.  This should be a primary element of your unconcious attention, not thinking about various intellectual elements of the music or evaluating yourself emotionally- whether you’re playing good or bad or what anybody listing might think of you.  All of that takes your awareness away from fundamental parts of the music.  Naturally this happens to everybody, and if it does simply try to put your attention back on the physical sensations of playing music and listening.  Related to this, it is important to realize that you should not worry too much about the notes you actually play when first doing this.  This is a meditation on the physical sensations of playing; we can go back and do all of this again and now add an awareness of the pitches we are using.  At first however don’t worry about pitches or intonation as much as the physical nature of what you’re doing.  You can add this awareness later.


Have fun!

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