Photograph is courtesy of Nunez family collection.
“It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing”
Duke Ellington & Irving Mills
“It doesn’t matter what technique you’re using; it has to groove.”
Groove is one of those concepts in music that’s difficult to define, but you know it when you hear it. Groove is the feel of a piece of music resulting from the synthesis of all of the parts. The rhythm, melody, harmonies, dynamics, and tone fit together in a way that gives the music a life of its own. Groove is what moves you emotionally, intellectually, physically, and even spiritually. Groove is evident in Yo Yo Ma’s playing of Bach’s Cello Suites. James Brown’s Please, Please, Please, Charlie Parker’s The Bird, Willie Nelson’s Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground, and the Rolling Stone’s Honky Tonk Woman. The really interesting thing about groove is that it is created by “imperfections” in the way a musical piece is played. If you take a piece of music, program it into a computer, and have it played technically precise, it won’t have groove. Groove is the heart and soul of music, and heart and soul is not about precision and perfection.
I propose that groove is also the heart and soul of life. When your life has groove, you can feel it. Your life’s groove may change. Sometimes your life has a blues groove; sometimes it has a quiet, classic groove; sometimes it has a driving rock groove, and sometimes it has an energizing jazz groove. When all aspects of your life are melding and working together, you are in the groove. When you don’t maintain the groove, when the aspects of your life are not melding well, life feels empty and stagnate.
For years I’ve been hearing and reading about maintaining life balance. I’ve even led seminars and given talks on life balance. Over time, though, I’ve come to see that the concept of balance just doesn’t work very well for me. The idea of balancing my life suggests some kind of mathematical precision – as though I’m expected to slice up my life into distinct, equal pieces, plug them into some formula, and magically solve for that elusive “X”. Maybe it works for some folks, but I was just never that good at math.
On the other hand, when I am consciously paying attention to the various ways I express my life and when I express those authentically and compassionately, my life feels like it has groove. When I’m focused on authentic expression of my life at work, at home, in my various roles as lawyer, husband, father, musician, friend, and steward, my life has grove. When I obsess about getting all those aspects perfect and precise, the groove falls away and my life becomes anxious and halting.
So, how do you maintain groove in your life? Here’s some things to think about:
- Give each part of your life its appropriate attention. Don’t ignore some aspect of your life just because it’s uncomfortable or fearful. Nothing ruins the groove of a song quite like the players ignoring each other. If the guitar is out of tune, or the drummer is missing the cues, or the bass player is playing in a different key, it just won’t work. You might not know what exactly is off, but you definitely won’t feel the groove. It’s the same way with life. If you’re not showing up at work; if you’re not giving your relationships the attention they need to thrive; if you’re not respecting your emotions, it will tell. You can feel it, and it won’t have groove.
- Take care of yourself. One of the first lessons you learn in music is how to care for your instrument. It takes time and care to keep your instrument in good playing condition. If your violin needs repair and you don’t take care of that, you can’t play to your potential. So it is with your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual self. You can be in great shape physically, but if you haven’t taken care of your emotions, or your thoughts are beating you down all day, you won’t find the groove. Sometimes, taking care of your violin means you take it to a luthier skilled in violin repair. Why should life be any different? Sometimes taking care of yourself means you take yourself to someone skilled in particular life matters, be it a life coach, a therapist, a doctor, or a financial wiz.
- Live your life with passion, not perfection. As I said earlier, nothing kills the groove quicker than requiring perfection in your life. Those who live their lives with passion make mistakes. If you’re attached to getting it all perfect all the time, you’ll never be able to find the groove. You’re human, and being human means you make mistakes. When you play a song with passion, the audience responds with passion, even when you don’t play it perfectly. Play the song perfectly but without passion, and the audience responds with cold silence. Which would you prefer?
- Whatever you do, keep playing. When you find yourself overwhelmed with your own importance, place the tip of your tongue firmly in your cheek and say to yourself, “this is very, very serious.” I hate to break it to you, but others don’t think about you all the time. Everyone else is doing exactly what you’re doing – thinking about themselves. So relax a little. The difference between a rock star and a living room amateur guitar player is not the music – it’s the celebrity. I don’t know about you, but I feel better when I live, love, and play just for the sake of living, loving, and playing instead of trying to impress others.
So here’s the deal. You’ve got a life – now let it groove!