One man’s groove is another man’s rut…well, sort of. The term rut is hard to define and, even when defined, the term is hard to distinguish from other lesser or greater terms of the same nature. What is a groove and what is a rut? Or in worse case scenarios, what is a chasm, what is an abyss? Maybe our situation is not that dramatic but it could become that especially if we find ourselves at a place that we can’t seem to break free from.
Defining a Groove and Defining a Rut
A groove is something that carries us, that we ride with and gain momentum from. With it, we move beyond our understanding. It works. It can be like riding a locomotive. How can it become a rut?
What if that locomotive is a commuter train? What if we ride it so often that it becomes routine, so habitual that it seems humdrum. What if we loose sight of its benefits and it looses its luster? We may have become dependent on it so much that it becomes our trap, the box we find difficulty think outside of.
Before we become to mired in the thought of entrapment let’s acknowledge that there is always a way out of this, usually as simple as opening a door.
Now that we’ve taken a cursory look at what a rut might be to us, let’s talk about the “idiomatic” part.
Idiomatic Isn’t Idiotic
“Idiomatic” means relative to an idiom which is defined as:
- a form of expression natural to a language, person, or group of people.
- a characteristic mode of expression in music or art
Taken (excerpt) from Google Search for term “idiom”
So in music, an idiom is a characteristic or typical sound associated with a wide variety of conditions such as style, time period, an ensemble, or a single instrument.
So we associate idioms with many aspects of music that we love and cherish such as our style or our tradition. It is not stupid, not a bad thing at all. That is, until we find ourselves in some way hindered by our attachment to it. If we become attached to our idioms, we may desire to learn creative ways to break that attachment even if we wish to remain faithful to our tradition.
What Are Our Idioms and How Can They Turn Into Ruts?
First, we look at the process of listening to and learning to play music. Here’s a simplified description of the process:
- We hear music.
- We like some of it so much that we want to learn it.
- We learn it in small pieces that we assemble into larger chunks.
- We learn more and get better with practice.
- We feel good about our accomplishments.
How each of those steps may feel to the learning musician:
- Really fun
- Really, really fun as well as exciting
- Pretty fun but starting to become work…not so certain about it because the feeling is starting to change
- Feeling a little better, maybe, or a little worse maybe, realising that this is work…but sticking with it.
- Ah, that feels good. Sometimes it feels really good!
At any point of this process, we frequently find ourselves jumping back to an earlier stage of those five steps, then moving forward again. This happens with any new discovery, anything we hear that we want to imitate, anything that another musician or a teacher desires from us.
We may start to feel like we spend most of our time at stages 3 and 4, going between these two, maybe spending all or most of our time at stage 3. It may seem that the work overshadows the reward. Waiving the flag of perseverance, we gravitate to the familiar, stick with what we know, and play a lot of the same things over and over. This is a natural process and everybody arrives at this point sooner or later. Some people are content to stay here. Some people are not content but have trouble getting out.
Examples of Idioms that Become Ruts
Here, I must relay my own experience and cannot claim that other musicians experience the same or feel the same about a similar experience.
I became interested in early music and spent a lot of time playing courtly dances: galliards, pavans, gavottes, earlier estampies, and the like. We played these on recorders, krumhorns, shawms, sometimes with a harp or lute. The music was enchanting. I also took interest in some folk traditions of Celtic music, Old Time Appalachian, some English country dance, even some Bluegrass music using 5-string banjo and mandolin. That encompasses a large amount of repertoire and I could never run out of new material to explore. But when I would be asked to play with a trumpet or a clarinet for even some simple tunes, the keys I need to play in were out of my reach. Drenched in these early music and folk traditions, I had become dependent upon a limited range of keys and also dependent upon frequent use of open strings. I could not break free of this barrier. This had become my rut.
I had heard many dynamite musicians who could play all over the key of G, but was I content with that for myself? I would either have to return to the traditions or I would have to learn something new.
How Can You Tell if You’re In a Rut?
In my example above, the determining factor would be how I felt about where I was and where I wanted to be. The first question to ask ourselves is, “How do I feel about my playing?” If you are O.K. with what you’re doing then there is no point in fixing something that doesn’t appear to be broken. If you have any sense that you could be doing more with what you do when you play, if you feel a little lack-luster when doing your normal thing with music, you should look at ways of bringing in more flexibility or some new elements of style….something refreshing to add. In many musical traditions, we have numerous examples of both traditionalists and those who stretch the boundaries.
How Do We Get Out of a Rut?
Ruts are easy things to get ourselves into. Looking back at our list of 5 steps, and studying our development as musicians, is important to acknowledge that the getting better part is not the feeling good part. This is true of any form of learning or growth. Most of us like feeling good better than getting better even though the part that we want is contingent upon the part we tend to avoid. So when find that staleness has set in, we must look for a beacon to guide us to new ground. That beacon could be a rising-star musician. It could be a local music teacher. It could be be a musician/friend, maybe even one who once was not as good as you, but who has invested the time and work into his craft and has excelled in his area of interest.
It is important to acknowledge our process, understand that progress doesn’t always mirror good-feeling, that feeling down is sometimes a sign that we are in a period of growth. Willingness to look at ourselves and to be open to change and learning is like the light-switch on the wall that shifts our perspective and begins the process of improvement.