That Elusive Groove

2011Symposium_1_2Some years ago, when I was leading a music rehearsal for our church worship team, often tried to stop the band from rushing tempos, while they for their part tried to stop me from dragging those same songs. I remember trying to teach them the groove I was feeling, but without consistent success. They naturally were comfortable in a driven rock feel whereas I was after more of a more laid back gospel or funk groove. The interesting thing was that their tendency to accelerate ended when they reached the tempo of their groove. In other words, it wasn’t the open-ended sort of rushing that just keeps getting faster until the whole thing falls apart because the tempo has out paced the musicians ability to play that fast. Our musical inner selves were set differently.

Why do people have different inner musical selves that cause them to approach the same music differently? Where differences like this exist, psychologists will tell us that there is a mixture of biological and environmental factors at work. We may play a piece of music differently because of differences in our biological cores, or because some were trained classically in a conservatory of music while others were trained under the mentoring of a popular or jazz musician. Some of us play music the way we do because we depend on music notation, while others play music the way we do because we are improvisers and skilled at playing by ear, but not music readers. A musician whose background is gospel, rhythm and blues, and funk will naturally approach music differently than a musician whose background is alternative rock. We bring the character and sound of what is familiar and what forms the foundation of our musicianship. This is why classical musicians rarely sound the same playing jazz as jazz musicians, opera singers seldom sound the same singing pop songs as pop singers, and why successful crossover musicians are so rare. These differences in biological make-up and musical experience also exist between students and their music teacher. Music teachers must consider the musical backgrounds of their students in order to understand why they interpret music they way they do, and to determine what training and experience is needed in order to appropriately interpret different musical styles.

There is, to be sure, a fundamental core of knowledge that every musician must start birdsongwith and build upon. For example, in Western music, the closest two pitches can be is one half step, there are diatonic scales, each divided into seven parts, and a chromatic scale divided into twelve parts. There is a rhythmic structure that includes meter and grouping arranged in a hierarchy, and there are pitch tendencies and attractions that define tonality and set a standard for intonation within the context of Western tonal music. I could perhaps continue the list of core fundamentals, but the point is that there is this body of knowledge that must be common to all Western musicians, regardless of in which genre individuals choose to perform. Other cultures could have quarter steps as the smallest interval, other tonalities, and other divisions of the octave, but there are, nonetheless, still core fundamentals for all musicians regardless of genre within a given culture, and if we generalize to fundamentals such as meter or scale, across all cultures.

Differences such as I experienced with my worship band, follow differences in styles and genre, but not in the fundamental way music is made. The more specific the issue is, the more defined the differences can be. For example, everyone in that rehearsal recognized the importance of establishing a steady beat, but did not agree on the more subtle differences of how notes are finessed in relation to the beat. Some wanted to play ahead of the beat, driving the music, while others wanted to play behind the beat, creating a more relaxed feel. I needed more experience performing music with a driving beat without rushing, and they needed more experience playing laid-back music without slowing down. As we fulfill our responsibility to give our students a diverse repertoire of quality music to listen to, practice, analyze, evaluate, interpret and perform, we must be sure that the fundamental core is solid, and that attention is given to stylistic differences so that they develop an ear for those differences, and a sense of how those differences affect interpretation and performance practices. Without a lot of listening, interpreting, and improvising in a less familiar genre or sub-genre, students brought up on rock will always rush jazz, and students brought up on hip-hop will always drag rock. It is the “inner workings” of each genre of music that give each genre a characteristic sound, groove and feel. Without an awareness of these, a diverse repertoire will sound strangely monolithic.

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