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Practicing and the Importance of the Groove

"If you can always return to those 'grooves' that make you smile, you'll be able to tackle any obstacle that comes your way, both in music, and perhaps in life as well"
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Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder
Every once in a while, I'll see a WholeNote.com forum message outlining a member's frustration with their progress on their instrument. It usually starts out with something like:

"That's it - I'm quitting. I've been practicing [x] for months now and I'm not getting any better. How long is it going to take for me to learn this thing?"

With so many concepts and techniques to learn such as scales, chords, arpeggios, rhythms, strumming, picking, fingerstyle, bending, and slides (to name a few), it's only natural to have both option anxiety (i.e. "what should I learn now?") and progress anxiety (i.e. "should it be taking this long for me to learn [x]?"). It's hard enough to stay focused enough to learn, absorb, and assimilate a particular concept without continually questioning whether the manner in which you are learning is actually working.

For me, the most effective way to deal with these types of anxieties is to get back to why you are learning the instrument in the first place: the music. When I say "the music", I mean the comfortable execution of a musical idea. It can be a song, a melody, a riff, a lick, part of a solo, a one-bar phrase, or any other things you can play that feels good and objectively sounds good. When a musical idea fits this criteria, it takes on the characteristics of what I like to call a groove. It doesn't matter if the groove doesn't contain scale [x] or chord [y], or use concept [z]. The only thing that matters is that when you play it, you dig it, other people dig it, and it reinforces why you play music in the first place.

A great source for these kinds of grooves is the increasing number of play-along book and CDs that are now available. A recent arrival on the sheet music scene, play along packages come with the sheet music (and tablature if applicable) of songs from your favorite bands and artists, and a matching CD that has a live band playing these songs minus your part. So you're the one who completes the music by "playing along". There is no better way to improve your playing and comfort with an instrument than by playing in a band, and this is the next best thing (plus you don't have to worry about waking up the neighbors). Imagine being able to play along with Stevie Wonder's greatest hits or to jam with Van Halen?

Play along books are available for a lot of different instruments, the most common being: which means there's something for everyone no matter what instrument you play or what musical style you prefer.

As you go through the process of learning a part and playing along with the accompaniment, try to keep a few things in mind:
  • Don't set any kind of timeframe for how much practice it will take to lock in your part. Just concentrate on getting the timing down, and then the feel of the music. Try to feel secure in the notion that it definitely will happen, instead of always wondering when it will happen.

  • One tell-tale sign that you're locking in your part is that you will naturally start to use an economy of motion to execute the idea. That is to say, you will tend to discard any excess movement in your hands and fingers, because it makes for easier execution. Your fingers will move less between chord changes or scale positions, and your strumming or picking will become more streamlined.

    If you ever watch any of your favorite players closely, you can see that it usually requires very little movement to execute the ideas they play. You should also strive to achieve that same kind of economy of motion.

  • This type of practicing can also be helpful if you are learning a larger body of music. For example, if you're learning a long solo, it's good to break it up into several smaller digestible parts, to practice each piece in the above fashion, and to then put the practiced pieces together and play them in sequence.
As simple as the above exercise is, it can often be hard to execute, especially for beginning and intermediate players. The emphasis always seems to be on learning more, instead of spending time honing what you already know. For a long time, I was guilty of this, knowing how to play full songs and solos note-for-note, but not playing any of it well, or in a satisfying way either to myself or to a listener. It's like you're giving a speech in which you're reading directly off the paper, instead of spending time learning how to pace the sentences and where to throw in certain inflections to make the subject matter more interesting and convincing.

To use another metaphor, the concept of honing or locking in a particular groove is akin to cross-training for an athlete, in that you are subsconsciously and simultaneously working on the building blocks that constitute good musicianship, instead of tackling them one at a time. In particular, it helps you develop good "time", which is a steady and even rhythmic component that all good players possess, and good technique, which is the smooth and easy execution of the particular groove. The latter concept always comes up whenever anyone asks me about fingerings for chords or scales. I always tell them to do whatever feels most comfortable, but to try to use that fingering in a variety of different musical ideas. Even if you start off using a less-than-optimal fingering, you will naturally gravitate toward a different fingering that feels better, and subsequently adopt it. Details like fingering are always best evaluated in the context of a song or a groove, and not simply in and of themselves, and thus by honing a groove that contains this fingering, you'll be able to work out the best solution for this particular situation.

Similarly, the honing of a groove is what all musicians go through when they join a band. In this case, the number of people trying to lock in the groove is equal to the number of musicians in the band. When everyone in the band has it locked in, the band has become what is often referred to as tight, with good time and well-executed parts. This is the point where the whole has become greater than the sum of its parts, and music has been created, instead of several musical parts played simultaneously. If you have derived satisfaction from playing a groove on just your own instrument, imagine doing this with three or four other people at the same time. It's an immensely empowering experience.

To further drive the point home, a friend of mine once took lessons from the great guitarist, Stanley Jordan at a summer camp in New Jersey. For one of his lessons, he and Stanley just played a simple 2-bar phrase over and over again - for almost a half hour. At the time, my friend just thought that Stanley was some crazy jazz guy, but during the next week, my friend noticed that his rhythm and timing were better, and that he was feeling more comfortable on the guitar. This typifies the importance of the groove.

So if you find yourself feeling the same kind of frustration I've outlined here, try getting back to the essence of playing an instrument - the music itself, and use the given exercise to facilitate this. In the long run, you'll be happier, and you'll be continually reminded of why you ever decided to start playing music. If you never lose sight of this, and can always return to those "grooves" that make you smile, you'll be able to tackle any obstacle that comes your way, both in music, and perhaps in life as well ...

Christopher Sung is a guitarist, an adjunct professor at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program, and a small-business owner - probably in that order.
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