Life Lessons From Legends

Mike Sturgis

Ageing is unavoidable.

And when I say this, I don’t just mean the chronological passing of time relative to our own existence.  I mean the physical and mental changes that occur as we age; changes to our cognition, health, looks, strength, perspective, etc. It’s these changes (specifically those perceived as deterioration) that we can find difficult, unpleasant or even frightening. Our culture’s idolisation of youth with its inherent subtle pessimism about aging make it all the harder. Vanity and the desire to feel well often incentivises us to do whatever we can to mitigate the aging process. This may slip us into a resistance to the reality that the passing of time is unstoppable and make it difficult to experience our aging with acceptance. And yet, there are shining examples of people who show us how to do this with consummate professionalism, humour and dignity. I’ve had the good fortune of being in close proximity to two of them lately and I would like to share them with you now.

Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave) is a true music legend and the original Soul Man. I had the privilege of performing with him recently as part of The Staks Band at the Cornbury Festival near Oxford, England. Sam is circa 83 years old and is a force of nature. He may not be busting the same moves he once did or even going for all of the jaw-dropping soulful high notes that he is so famous for, but his performance held thousands of people spellbound. Prior to the event, he took time out to rehearse with the band one afternoon where we were able to get to know him a bit. It was clear that his passion for music (and for songs he’s sung for 50+ years) was undiminished, often going into specific detail about how he wanted things to sound. He was a willing raconteur, generously sharing many a funny and fascinating story.

Sam Moore

On the same bill as us was The Beach Boys led by co-founding member Mike Love. If I’m not mistaken, Mike is 78 years old. I watched the entire set from out front with Mike leading an incredible band, playing hit after hit after hit. He was up there standing, moving, singing and being the de facto emcee for over an hour and a half. His musicality and showmanship were flawless, and without the slightest hint that he, like Sam, has been singing many of those songs for over half a century.

Mike Love

What have I learned from these living legends? I’ll try to sum it up here in a few points in no particular order.

Keep your sense of humour – Sam was cracking jokes all the time when we were with him and Mike had a wicked, dry sense of humour that he employed when introducing tunes or band members. Both of them kept me laughing!

Don’t stop moving – even at their advanced ages, both of these men came over from the US to do gigs in England. They are not just hunkering down and living off their royalties.

  • Stay energised – these two guys have literally seen and done it all but are still approaching their work with enthusiasm.
  • Extend to others – both of these men were fun to work with and be around as evidenced by their levels of interaction with people both on and off the stage.
  • Pay attention to detail – both men made sure that in musical sense the bands they worked with did things accurately and authentically. Each of their performances was characterised by the aggregation of marginal gains.

Sam and Mike have nothing to prove to anyone and their places in music history are assured. However, they are still out there giving performances that are inspirational and entertaining – long may it last!

Groove, Pocket and Feel

Mike Sturgis at British Grove Studios with the Stacks Band

The vernacular of a musician (or those discussing music) is sometimes a bit mysterious, weird, comedic or just generally inaccessible to the ‘layman’. On one hand, there are terms like accelerando or many others that are part of widely accepted musical lexicon that have clear, textbook definitions. But there are other words or phrases that are less conventional and are open to an element of interpretation, even amongst hipsters in the music community. With this in mind, I would like to take on a challenge that makes solving the debacle of Brexit seem lightweight in comparison; that is, to look at the frequently used terms of groove, pocket and feel and to try to understand their full meaning.

For example, how many times you have you heard someone say something like this:

“He/she has a killer groove.”

“Man, that’s grooving like mother*%\$@!”

“That guy/girl was so in the pocket.”

“He/she has an unbelievable feel.”

I’ll put it out there at this point that I believe there is some subjectivity involved in what is meant by these terms and I’m not sure that there actually are universally accepted definitions. However, the brief bit of research I’ve done suggests that there is some common thinking; in my quest to decode and demystify ‘groove language’ I’ve done some interesting reading and have also had the opportunity to ask some great musicians what they think.

To define all things relating to groove I went straight to someone who seems to have stood in line at least twice when it was being allocated by a Higher Power. Van Romaine is one of my favourite drummers and is widely known for recording and touring as a drummer and musical director with amazing artists such as Enrique Iglesias, Steve Morse, Nena and many others. Here’s his take on what these three terms mean:

“From my years of experience, groove and pocket are general terms for playing in time along with the other musicians and/or tracks. “Make sure you play in the groove” or “he/she has a great groove/pocket” would tend to mean the musician plays in time, for the song and doesn’t overplay. Feel, on the other hand (in my eyes) relates specifically to the one-of-a-kind stamp and personality of a musician’s groove or pocket. It’s a view into their soul as well, from my experience. While drummers Steve Jordan and Stewart Copeland both have an amazing groove and pocket, their feels are drastically different. Also, from what I see the musicians who focus on these three things tend to be the people playing on the most records and tours.”

Van Romaine

Van Romaine

Another heavyweight musician I’ve consulted, one who has a deep understanding these concepts from the perspective of someone outside of the rhythm section, is composer, arranger and lead trumpet extraordinaire Kevin Robinson (Simply Red, Incognito, Tom Jones). When asked about this subject, Kevin responded with the following:

“I think maybe with the exception of ‘groove’ there isn’t one single definition or easy explanation to what these terms actually mean. The reason I say this is because I think they mean different things to different people and can be applied to several situations, which also means they are all intrinsically part of the same fabric of music production.”

“Groove for example can be straightforwardly defined as a rhythmic pattern, be it sourced entirely from a percussive instrument (e.g. drums) or as a collective entity, the result of several musicians all playing together.”

“That being said, it’s still not a simple case of a rhythmic/chordal pattern being played ‘in time’…there are subtleties of execution involved that link ‘groove’ to feel…e.g. a simple slight displacement of part of the rhythm that takes it away from the metronome that will result in the music being played ‘loosely’- but it can still groove.”

“Pocket is a little more difficult for me to define because for me it is based almost entirely on feeling…also, I think that tempo plays a very important role in determining pocket…certain songs, grooves etc work best at certain tempos, causing them to sit ‘in the pocket’. Of course, individuals can also be attributed as playing ‘in the pocket’ and it’s obvious when they’re not. So basically, there is a lot of subjectivity involved largely based on skill, experience and emotional maturity.”

Kevin Robinson

Kevin Robinson

Neuroscientist and musician Daniel Levitin is the author of This Is Your Brain On Music, a book which analyses how our brains interpret music and the subsequent neural impulses that result when listening to it. When Levitin talks about groove in his book, he aligns with Van and Kevin but also blurs a little bit into that loosely defined area of ‘feel’:

“Groove has to do with a particular performer or particular performance, not with what is written on paper. Groove can be a subtle aspect of performance that comes and goes from one day to another, even with the same group of musicians.

Musicians generally agree that groove works best when it is not strictly metronomic – that is, when it is not perfectly machine-like. Although some danceable songs have been made with drum machines, the gold standard of groove is usually a drummer who changes the tempo slightly according to aesthetic and emotional nuances of the music; we say then that the rhythm track, that the drums, “breathe.”

Daniel Levitin

Daniel Levitin

Hearing from these experts has been helpful for me, and I’m pleased to say that my own thinking on this subject is fairly aligned with their opinions. For me, the terms ‘groove’ (when used as a noun) and ‘pocket’ are usually referring to the quality and consistency of someone’s timekeeping (both as an individual and/or in the context of an ensemble) and are virtually interchangeable in their usage. Therefore, we can say, “They have a great groove/pocket” and be fairly confident that this refers to their ability to play in time, both on their own and with others. However, a great groove/pocket can also be a collective experience (or ‘entity’, as Kevin Robinson suggested) that is created from an ensemble, usually from individual musicians who all have this quality in abundance. Strangely, we often use the term ‘groove’ as a verb but never so with ‘pocket’ (e.g. “Man, that was really pocketing!”)

That brings me to ‘feel’, which as described above seems to be an even larger concept than groove or pocket, although I still believe the terms are inextricably linked. When we talk about someone’s feel, it’s almost like we are using one small word to encapsulate the totality of their playing. While there may be more, here’s a few of the areas that I believe comprise a musician’s feel:

  • Timing (hence the overlap with groove and pocket)
  • Execution (the level of technique and the ability to actually play what is required, with pin-point accuracy not necessarily being better depending on the genre)
  • Dynamics (as appropriate for the chosen genre)
  • Content (the ability to play appropriately as each musical context requires)
  • Sound/Timbre (which includes tuning)
  • Intuition (the ability to respond appropriately to the music and other musicians)

I’ve just come up with DISCET as a mnemonic but I’m sure that there must be a better one!

There has been a lot more written on this subject that you can check out if you’re interested. As a starting point, I would like to recommend the following:

What is groove? (Ethan Hein)

Playing in the Pocket (Dave Martin)

Push, Drag and Center: What is Playing in the Pocket, Anyway? (Mike Emiliani)

Thinking and Intuition

One of the things that constantly inspires me as I work in the UK Higher Education sector is remembering my own student experience at the University of Miami, which is now unbelievably (to me, anyway) over 30 years ago. Even though so many years have passed, I still feel the benefits of my time there. This is due not only to the things I experienced and learned while I was a student but also in the rich friendships I have been able to maintain with former classmates and teachers over the years. It’s great to see how many of them have carved out incredible careers in the music industry and it’s a privilege to be part of this very special community.

Four years at UM taught me a lot and provided me with some essential tools to follow my dreams and ambitions.  And while sometimes it’s hard to remember some of the specifics of all of the information I took in, there are two seemingly contradictory pithy maxims that have been virtually tattooed in my grey matter. They have helped me through many different personal and professional scenarios when I’ve had the wisdom to apply them as the situation demands. And because you’re taking the time to read this, I would like to share them with you now in the hopes that they will enrich your life.

Are you ready? Drum roll, please – here’s the distillation of my four years of degree studies:

Pithy maxim #1 – THINK, DON’T STINK!

Pithy maxim #2 – JUST PLAY, MAN!

N.B. Despite the use of ‘man’ this phrase is meant to be gender-neutral!

I’ll explain more about these one by one:

Think, Don’t Stink (TDS) was a mantra I heard countless times in my rehearsals with UM’s Concert Jazz Band by director Whit Sidener. Whit was an inspirational and formidable band leader who made the guy in the movie Whiplash look wimpish in comparison! His main reason for invoking TDS was usually for anyone who was making errors in their chart reading. Bear in mind that these charts were usually 3-4 page handwritten epics that might contain a wide range of dynamics, rhythmic figures, styles, time signature changes and a fairly complicated ‘road map’. Whit knew that just being creative and technically proficient on your instrument wasn’t enough; you needed to be fully focused on the notation at all times and not let your concentration wander. Otherwise, no matter how good of a player you were, mistakes would happen in these complex arrangements. Therefore, thinking (and the ability to bring your concentration back to the task at hand) in this context was critical.

Conversely, Just Play, Man (JPM) was an additional theme in CJB rehearsals and also an admonition that I heard more frequently from other great teachers at UM including Steve Rucker, Dan Bonsanti and Ron Miller to name just a few. JPM encouraged you to not overthink music but to become totally immersed in it and trust your intuition. For example, if you become too fixated on the minutiae of your technique during a performance, this ‘overthinking’ might make the overall quality of the music suffer. Sometimes in music or sport you might hear an outstanding performance described as someone playing ‘out of their mind’. In other words, there were aspects of the performance that went beyond thought; the activity itself became one that flowed intuitively and was not limited by mechanistic cognition. And so that was the goal; to play and communicate music in an almost Zen-like state that was on another level of consciousness.

I believe TDS and JPM are parallel truths that must be applied in equal measure in a performance and the best musicians are able to do this. Without question, a good musical performance requires focus and concentration; equally, it’s often when we are able to go beyond mere thinking and channel our intuitive creative energy into a ‘flow’ activity that the moments of magic occur. I wish you well with discovering and maintaining the balance between these two mindsets in your music and in other areas of your life where they might apply – the possibilities are endless.

Tiger’s Performance Mentality

I’m not a golfer, but like millions of others I was totally engrossed in the final day of the 2019 Masters tournament. It was an amazing thing to see Tiger Woods emerge victorious, a feat now widely regarded as one of the greatest comebacks in the history of sport. As he was being interviewed in Augusta’s Butler Cabin directly after winning, I expected Tiger to talk extensively about his strategic approach for the final round and how he would need to play his “A-game” to win. Instead, he said this:

“I was just trying to plod my way around the golf course all day; just plod my way around…”(0.29)

I wouldn’t usually describe the talent, power and determination of Tiger Woods as “plodding”. When I think of plodding, it usually conjures up images of fatigue, lethargy, apathy or even incompetence.

In fact, a quick look at https://www.dictionary.com/ for plod (verb) gave me the following definition:

  • to walk heavily or move laboriously; trudge:to plod under the weight of a burden.
  • to proceed in a tediously slow manner: The play just plodded along in the second act.
  • to work with constant and monotonous perseverance; drudge.

If you saw the round, it was clear that Tiger was not trudging or moving laboriously, though one could certainly argue that he had constant and monotonous perseverance. However, I believe the “Tiger-plod” is actually more than that.

To be succinct, it is about being fully present with the process. He managed to stay completely in the moment throughout the round and was not distracted by what others were doing or what the eventual outcome would be. His round became its own universe, having nothing to do with his own expectations or those of others. Instead, his focus was on each step, each swing, each putt. Regardless of how good or bad each one was, there was no inner celebration, self-criticism or judgement. Instead, there was only acceptance of each moment as it unfolded. The only time when he may have been thinking ahead was when it was necessary to plan the next shot. By being in this Zen-like mindset, he was able to alleviate some (probably not all) of the pressure of the occasion and create a relaxed, inner stillness that made him feel like he was not working excessively hard either physically or mentally; only plodding.

In a fascinating interview where he discusses the 2019 Premiership title race, renowned sports psychologist Professor Steve Peters makes some observations that align well with Tiger’s plod mentality. He says this:

“For most people in sports psychology, we’d advise that you actually focus on just the process of what you are doing rather than an outcome and whether you are going to win or lose.

“That is the ideal because your maximum chance of getting somewhere is to just focus on the process and not the consequences.”

This mentality can be applied to many things, but one area where it has a direct parallel is in mitigating the potential anxiety of a musical performance. Making the assumption that you are fully prepared for the music you’re playing in a technical sense (which is of course essential), it’s often our “mental static” that can get in the way of performing at our highest level. We sometimes place huge expectations on ourselves, worry about what others might think and receive a battering from what can be the harshest and most destructive voice of all, the inner critic. We perhaps could alleviate much of this by not thinking too far ahead and staying completely in the moment of our performances, focusing on the process and not the outcome. In this way, we may see more of our inner Tiger emerge and have performances that are less anxious and are more consistent in producing our optimum level.

A Music Degree – Really?

Are music degrees worth the time, effort and money? It’s a big question that there is no definitive answer for but certainly provides a big platform for discussion and debate.

For me, undertaking a music degree was no less of a conundrum when I was studying 30 years ago than it is for many now. I had been playing music constantly since age 10 and was in no doubt that it was where my heart was; however, being a young pragmatist from a small town in the midwestern US I made a ‘head over heart’ decision and felt it was far better to obtain a ‘safe’ degree in business administration than to hurl myself into the mysterious and precarious wilderness known as the music industry. Eventually, I gathered enough courage to switch my major to music and also managed to get the opportunity to do this at the University of Miami. This pivotal decision changed my life and has subsequently provided me with countless experiences that have been hugely rewarding and fulfilling, all of which I would have missed had I not undertaken a music degree. Now working in higher education with DIME ONLINE, it’s been a privilege to be able to help students who are in the same situation that I was make that important decision as to whether a music degree is the right thing for them.

Ultimately, I studied music because I was compelled to – it literally floats my proverbial boat! While studying, I only thought of my degree in relation to how it prepared me for life as a music professional. And while it did this in ways that I couldn’t have done on my own due to the incredible learning experience I had there, I did not foresee that the wider skills I was developing (in addition to subject-specific skills) were preparing me for my parallel career in music education and other working.

The concept of a ‘portfolio career’ for a musician is not new – these days most musicians go into their professional life knowing that they will need to be versatile and bring together a number of different income streams to make a living. These activities may be directly related to their specialism or may see them branching off into potentially unforeseen areas. And because musicians are creative people with a real passion for learning, it is the transferable skills that they acquire (almost under the radar) that can prepare them for many opportunities in life.

And what might these additional skills/superpowers be? Well, anyone working in a music ensemble needs to learn about communication and be good at it – preferably with a blend of diplomacy and assertiveness as the situation requires. Most of all, being someone who can self-manage – you must be very wise with your time/activities and be reliable when you are called to be somewhere and/or do something. Understanding teamwork and the subtle dynamics of this is crucial, in addition to your capacity and willingness to take on additional areas of responsibility when needed, even if they fall out of your comfort zone. The ability to work with people, manage a potential wide range of opinions (some very emotional) with equanimity and be a good listener are all skills that employers and co-workers will value highly. On balance, a music degree offers challenges that are both creative and academic, requiring you to be organised and methodical in your working but also able to be expressive and innovative – a unique proposition that facilitates holistic learning and thinking.

Perhaps the biggest reason to embark on a music degree is the idea that you should choose an area of study that you truly love. If you are truly passionate about music, then don’t underestimate or undervalue a music degree. Do the thing that makes your heart beat faster and see it (and the possibilities it may create for you) in its broadest context; it’s far better to do this and get a good degree than to do something that you feel is a more conventional/employable option and do it half-heartedly. Additionally, I advise finding a school that prioritises ‘real-world’ working in the industry as well as the option of more esoteric creative projects. The staff should strongly reflect this ethos and be working professionals with significant (and ongoing) experience as music professionals. Inextricably linked with this is the curriculum, which should prepare students in practical ways for a myriad of professional opportunities and maintains currency with the industry.

I wish you well in your journey!