Metronomes are a very important practice tool. I have known students who have gone through three or four metronomes in the course of their studies. You might think that is due to poor quality or overuse but no, the cause was in most cases a result of throwing the metronome against the wall, in utter frustration. The point is that metronomes are a useful and important tool but they can be quite exasperating as well. They are precise and unforgiving which of course is the point. Our human tendency is to slow down at the difficult passages and speed up at the simple ones. Sometimes we just fall into rhythmic interpretations based on how we think the music goes, the way we have heard it performed rather than the way it is written. Either way the point of the metronome is to help to keep the rhythms we are learning clear-cut and accurate.
Metronomes are relatively inexpensive and can be purchased either with or without other options, such as instrument tuners. They are also available in the form of free apps for smart phones or tablets. Every student should have a metronome for practice purposes. Using a metronome should be self explanatory. To get started bring your metronome to your lesson and talk to your teacher about it. The teacher can help to determine the best starting and goal tempo settings for you to work with.
The next time you practice you will be ready to work with the metronome. If this is your first experience with a metronome, begin by choosing a modest tempo setting perhaps between 60 and 80 clicks per minute. Just listen to the clicks for a bit, until you can feel the beats. The goal is to listen and to and play along with the metronome. Now, play a note, any note, at the exact same time as each click of the metronome. Focus so that your note is neither before or after the click but right on the beat. When that is easy try playing longer notes, such as one note for every two clicks, all the time, keeping your focus. Next practice subdividing by playing TWO EVENLY SPACED notes for every one click. That is probably enough to get the feel of working with the metronome initially.
The metronome is usually set to match the tempo of your quarter note, one click per quarter note, two clicks per half note, two notes per click for eighth notes, etc. If you feel the need you can take a very simple passage and work with the metronome for a bit at different tempos. When you are ready go to the next step which is to begin your normal practice routine incorporating the metronome as you go.
I never even consider using the metronome until I have had a chance to become familiar with the section of the exercise or piece I am going to be working on. Practicing with the metronome is helpful both in drilling individual challenging sections and eventually for working through the entire piece. Even if I have been working on a section or piece for a while, I play through it once or twice without the metronome at the beginning of the session, working through the challenges a bit and finding a comfortable starting tempo. Then I set the metronome at a click or two below that tempo and play through the section of the piece at that very comfortable tempo paying careful attention to all of the details. Again, be sure that you are engaging in mindful practice, mindful of the notes, the tone and the precise tempo. Eventually this becomes almost hypnotic or meditative.
Once the initial tempo becomes really easy it is time to set the metronome up one or two ticks and begin working on that section again, in the same manner. When that tempo becomes really easy, set the metronome up another notch or two, etc. until you reach the ideal tempo. Please note that this can take many days (or longer) to accomplish. Make note of the tempo you are comfortable with at the end of your practice session. When you resume practice the next day, set the metronome a few ticks lower than the tempo that you were comfortable with at the previous practice session and then repeat the process over again. At some point you will be able to play the entire piece with the metronome set at your goal tempo, without speeding up at the easier sections or slowing down at the more difficult passages. The piece will then be easy to play at the desired tempo.
Once you have the tempo up to par it is time to turn the metronome off. You should have the feel of the tempo in your fingers and in your body and mind by that point. That’s when it is time to work on adding the elements that give the music you are playing the beauty, passion and life it deserves. As useful as the metronome is all of that precision can eventually lead to a mechanical, lifeless, stiff feel which is not at all what you are after. How you interpret the piece at this point is to a degree open to your discretion but we can discuss that in more depth in the next post.