In past articles, I've stressed how groove is expressed differently in singers than for instrumentalists. For example, drummers express the rhythm outside their bodies although they can feel it inside. Great singing necessitates internalizing the groove into your body.
Yes, counting is a good way to start. A singer must "know" where the beat is -- this is the only way to truly be in control of your performance. You can direct musicians, sing a cappella, lead other singers and vary the phrasing -- all through groove.
If you sing from your head (i.e. thoughts) rather than get it into your body, you still can count the beats in the measure, land on the downbeat, come into the song on the right beat etc., but you lose feel. Feel is what moves people; makes you sound passionate; and allows you to interpret the lyrics differently through phrasing.
Some Tips for Getting the Groove Into Your Body and Into Your Sound:
Learn the correct rhythm and feel of the song. This means, what is the timing - is it 4/4, 2/4, 6/8? Is it an upbeat feel, a swing feel, etc.?
Work out the timing. Practice each phrase line by line if you need to, so that you learn how the lines fit with the rhythm.
Learn the phrasing by heart groove-wise. Guessing where the groove is, or where you come in does not work ever!
Lean into the groove. Leaning into the groove is definitely a learned singing technique. It is used in gospel and R&B, but rockers like Bono use it too. Leaning means that you lean your body slightly forward, from your back, not your head, as you sing through the vowel. This allows the sound to bend a bit, but not the pitch.
Lyrics and melodies need fit into a phrase rhythmically. If you have too many words in a phrase or you are rushing to get everything in or the timing is off, it may be that you are fighting the groove. I once had a student who couldn't figure out the beats in a traditional song or how to fit the words, even though he knew the song well. Once he used his body to lean into the downbeat and pull up on the upbeat, the lines fell into place.
Tap the beat. A DJ I worked with on my dance hit taught me to beat my palm, or hand on my chest so I could get the beat in my body. He would line up turntables this way: it totally works! You can tap your foot or thigh, but I like the idea of getting it into the center of your body.
Slow down to speed up. You can't express the song fully unless the groove is integrated into your body. See this as the important aspect of the song that it is. If you're having trouble, you can slow down a song at first. Once you get the groove mastered then take the song up to speed.
Listen to artists who are skilled with groove. Learn from singers like Adam Levine of Maroon 5 or Brian McKnight. Practice their songs to cop their type of rhythmic styling and add it to your own "groove" toolbox.
This excerpt taken from Teri's upcoming book Nail It Every Time: The Pro Singer's Guide to Everything Vocal with singing tips and more. Reprinted only with permission. All rights are reserved. More vocal tips are published on http://www.a2z-singing-tips.com. This essay was first published May 4, 2009 on The Modern Vocalist.com the Internet's #1 community for vocal professionals, voice health practitioners and pro-audio companies worldwide since November 2008.