How to Supercharge Your Performance With This Hip Hop Trick

How to Supercharge Your Performance With This Hip Hop Trick

When can you wear sweats onstage?

(As in your grey, baggy pants with white drawstrings…)

Or jeans?

When can you whip your hair back and forth… and strangers will cheer?

Hip hop time, that’s when.

Hip hop dancers use a technique that helps them perform their best, and that’s what we’ll be talking about here.

You know the friend you fall out of touch with? You meet again a few years later, and remember really awesome things about that friend.

And you think, “Whoa, what happened back then? I didn’t realize how great she was.”

That was me with hip hop this weekend.

There’s something great that we can get from hip hop… that YOU can use in your playing too.

Finding it in hip hop

I used to dance hip hop. I danced but I didn’t want to spin on my head.

Music is an unbelievably important part of hip hop. Like, ballerinas can dance without music and it would look and feel beautiful. But hip hop dancers need their music to hit it hard.

I danced to good songs with melody lines. None of the Black and Yellow stuff for me.

I didn’t just dance in front of the mirror; I choreographed and performed onstage. A few years ago, I fell out of the pattern and left the hip hop scene.

I’m one of those versatile dancers who adapt to different styles. When I was doing hip hop, I was also doing gymnastics a twice a week, with a local team.

In hip hop class, we did sit ups and pushups and lots of strength training. I didn’t know that it was supposed to feel like work– my gymnastics training was ten times harder than that.

I did not understand, at the time, why people ended up squishing their faces on the ground, red and sweaty, after our pushup-situp combos. It was easy for me.

Now? Watch me try fifty pushups– it won’t happen. But, I still know how to groove.

What’s a ‘groove’?

This weekend, I put on my groove and joined the hip hop scene again.

Every performer was confident and enjoying the movement, the music.

When music is loud enough, it fills the space and becomes something of its own that goes with the dance.

Every dancer had the groove. Having the groove means being absorbed in what you’re doing, and doing it confidently, so much that you don’t have room for anything else in the moment.

The music starts, and you’re awake, alive. Feeling the beat. You feel a current of movement through your body. Getting ready for something big.

You might bob your head slightly, in time with the music, or shift your feet.

Here’s an example of that with Chachi; she was on the show America’s Best Dance Crew, and she practically sat beside me last weekend. I could’ve reached out and shook her hand or something. I couldn’t figure out why people kept coming near our section and taking self photos. It turns out that you can get a photo “with” Chachi in the background. I didn’t know that Chachi was such a big deal until the MC announced her.

In the video, the dancing starts at 0:21, but the two of them start doing their own thing, feeling the groove, before– the walking, bobbing, and messing around is not part of the choreography.

That’s how dancers start feeling the groove. There’s no room for feeling nervous. No doubts.

Getting the pianist groove

There were two main attractions at the event:

One, people were battling in a circle on the ground. Two, there was a stage, where a dance competition lasted for eight hours. I stayed for the whole thing.

At both places, the dancers got their groove before they started dancing. In other words, they were good– they know how to perform their best.

I dissected the whole culture: DJ, emcees, dancing, battles. They had a tribute dance to hip hop culture, for goodness’ sake. Anything goes onstage– sweats, jeans, shorts, you name it. Everyone does it.

As a pianist, when you walk onstage, there is no music. When you sit down, there is no music.

When you demonstrate for your students and you’re not feeling confident, there is no music.

The music comes from you. There is no music to prepare you, but you still need to groove.

That is when you need to find the music inside.

How to get the groove when you play

To groove when there’s no music, you’ll need to focus on what’s inside.

It’s alright to feel what you’re feeling. One dance teacher said to me, “It’s good to feel nervous– it makes you feel alive!”

It’s true. It feels alive. The crowd can’t tell what you’re feeling as well as you think.

Focus on the groove. Do what you need to do: some people focus on their breathing, and other people focus on the piece they’re about to play.

A good trick is to imagine the sound in your head before you start playing. It prepares your mind and body for what you’re about to do; you’ve probably done it before and that will bring you back.

Whatever you do, when you sit down, do not start playing right away. Give yourself at least a few seconds to groove. Get used to the bench. Adjust if you need to.

Sometimes, people get so carried away with being nervous that they just want to get it over with and they start playing right away. I used to do that.

I even forgot to bow for an important piano performance. Let me tell you, I was at the age where I should’ve known better (no pity points for me).

When you give yourself the chance to groove, focus, you will play better. It won’t be a a sudden jolt when the music starts because you’ve already begun grooving and the music started in your head. Taking small steps is key.

Now I want to hear from you:

Do you give yourself time to groove when you play piano? Why or why not?

Leave a comment below to join the conversation!

And if you know someone who will find this useful, just send it to them.

5 Comments

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  • Joey Lee June 28, 2013 at 11:13 pm

    Victor Wooten names groove as one of the ten all-important aspects of music in his book, The Music Lesson. For improvisational musicians, especially in the jazz idiom, feeling the groove before and while you play, and letting IT lead you, is pretty much a prerequisite to improvising in a confident way. Just watch and listen to players like Chucho Valdes (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9VCME9tp9Es), Michael Wolff (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TN-EpEUL66s), Chick Corea (https://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=8Q52r7xMd3U&feature=endscreen), etc. Practice improvising daily and letting the groove lead you and you’ll sound and enjoy playing better than ever.

    • Grace Miles June 29, 2013 at 7:35 pm

      Joey, thanks for your comment. It’s interesting how I’ve never read Wooten’s book, but we came up with the same name for a similar idea independently. Now I have to read his book.

  • Malcolm Kemp June 29, 2013 at 1:13 am

    I’ve been both practising this kind of thing and encouraging students to do likewise for two or three years now and it really works. I get sad when other musicians – some very experienced and well qualified people – refuse to try such things. Different people call it different names such as being centred or mindful but the name doesn’t matter; it’s the principle that’s important.

    • Grace Miles June 29, 2013 at 7:44 pm

      Hey Malcolm, I’m super glad to hear that.

      I’m curious: what exactly do you tell your students to do? (and what do you call it?)

      The name does change how we approach something. For example, some people call their blog posts “essays”, which makes it seem more academic. Whether it actually is written like a school paper is another issue. But people approach “essays” differently from, say, a “diary”. (Both of these are published on blogs.)

  • Tzod Earf July 1, 2013 at 7:33 pm

    Since I’m a baby on the piano, sometimes when I’m playing something well I go OCD and play it over and over again, because once the groove is over I don’t know when it’s coming back. Sometimes when I let go of concern about making mistakes, I slip into the groove.

    Other times I’m in the groove playing with the piano doing whatever, which probably would drive you up the wall.

    I do wonder, when you play inside your head, is the music better than it usually is live?