Using a Metronome
Glenn Poorman, February 2000
If you've ever had lessons on an instrument beyond the beginner level,
you've no doubt been prodded by your teacher to use your metronome. And
you've probably nodded agreeably while still sitting at your lesson only
to walk out and never so much as blow the dust off this piece of equipment.
I remember studying saxophone with Max Plank at Eastern Michigan University
and, at the end of a semester, he would have all of his students come down
to his office and play scales. Not all of the scales, of course, but you
never knew which ones he was going to ask for so you had to know them all.
And if that wasn't bad enough, after the ordeal was over and you tried to
squeek out the door he'd say "not so fast", reach in his drawer, and pull
out the metronome. With a smile he'd say "let's try this again".
I was never sure of the reason why so many students looked upon the
metronome with such comtempt but, I believe, it probably has something to
do with the fact that nothing can bring you down faster than a metronome.
Just when you think you have something sussed and you're all proud of
yourself, the metronome forces you to put your money where your mouth is
and play without mistakes while keeping the tempo. That task is much easier
said than done and is usually a humbling experience. It is a task, however,
that is much easier to accomplish in the long run by working with the
metronome right from the start.
Let's face it. Everybody loves to work on new tunes and get them up to
speed as quickly as possible. With a tune that has a mixture of easier
parts and harder parts, many people tend to do one of two things. They
either whip through the easy parts and then slow it way down when they
get to the hard parts or they just go ahead and blow through the hard
parts at full speed riddling their playing with mistakes. The latter
practice will hurt you far more than the former but neither practice
is optimal. If you continue to blow through the hard parts and make all
those mistakes, and if you never work slowly to correct those mistakes,
those mistakes will stay with you and this piece forever. I suppose if
you crank up the fuzz high enough people might not notice but you'll
know they're there. Now, if you slow down for the hard parts, you're
at least working them out. What you're not doing, however, is playing
the piece at a nice even tempo which is just as important as getting
the mistakes out.
Getting a Metronome
The metronome is a great way to work out a piece at the required tempo
and without mistakes. Yes, at first it can be boring and almost painful.
But if you stick it out, you'll be surprised at what you can accomplish.
First, you need to get a metronome. They come in all shapes and forms.
I used to be a traditionalist and believed that the old fashioned Seth
Thomas was the only way to go. These units work well and have the added
benefit of being an attractive accessory to display on top of your piano
or desk or amp. The drawback to these units, however, is that you need
an absolute level surface or they click off tempo (like a heart beat).
Since my current practice area seems to be void of level surfaces, this
drove me crazy so I started to use a simple click track in my drum
machine. Something like a drum machine actually can work quite well.
The drawback here was, since it was meant as a drum machine and not just
a simple metronome, there were far too many steps involved in doing
something as simple as changing the tempo or putting an accent on beats one
and three. So I went shopping. I found a whole collection of different
battery operated metronomes. I also found them to be very inexpensive. I
picked up a nice unit made by Sabine for about twenty five dollars
and I have no complaints. There's a nice dial on the front for setting
tempos, a good loud click, and accent settings.
Using the Metronome
Once you have your metronome, it's time to put it to use. When just
getting started on a piece, I prefer not to use the metronome right
away. At first, it's hard enough just to get the jist of the piece
and how it sounds (especially if you're reading is slow) without
worrying about the tempo. Once you start to get familiarized with the
piece, however, it's time to bring in the metronome.
At first, this is probably going to be painful. What you need to do is
to find a speed on the metronome in which you can play something all
the way through comfortably and with no mistakes. Sounds easy enough at
first until you try it. You'll keep dialing down and dialing down until
your speed is unbearably slow and you're cursing the day you ever read
this article. If, even at slow speeds, what you're looking for is still
unattainable, you may have jumped the gun and need to go back to working
without the metronome a little more. The reason you're putting yourself
through this is so that you can train yourself to know what it's like to
actually play through the piece in question correctly. If you keep blowing
through the hard parts making all those mistakes, your brain just comes
to expect and accept it after a while. If you think you're not going to
be able to play something without mistakes, then you almost certainly
never will. You're learning a valuable lesson here. How can you play
through something up to speed if you can't play through it slow? The answer
is that you can't. You need to work up to it.
So once you've found your speed, the rest is simple. When you're comfortable
with that speed, dial the metronome up a notch (two notches at the most).
Now play the piece again. If you start fumbling, stay at the new speed until
you're comfortable again. Once that's happened, dial up again. Repeat this
until you're up to tempo. This, of course, is not going to happen overnight.
What you should notice, however, is that you'll pass a point where the next
steps come faster and faster. You may even start dialing up four or five
notches instead of one or two. That's when you know you've got it and you
just need to build up the muscles in your fingers to play it faster.
A little cheating here and there can go a long way. When I'm working on
a piece with the metronome. I'll usually make it a point, at least once
before a practice session is over, to dial the metronome up to full
speed regardless of where I'm at and have a go at it. Or better still,
turn the metronome off and just go for it. Personally, I really think you
need to do this once in a while to keep your sanity. For starters, it's
just a fun thing to do. The interesting thing, however, is that everytime
you try it, you'll probably notice that it's sounding more and more like
it's suppose to. Suddenly, you're playing through these complex passages
at speed that, yesterday, were a complete mess. It can be a real eye opener.
Don't get frustrated. You're going to have periods where your progress
is slow and periods where it's fast. The other particularly annoying thing
is that trouble passages today might not be trouble passages tomorrow but
passages that were easy yesterday may suddenly become troublesome today.
This is all part of the torture. If you're getting sloppy again, just dial
the metronome back down. The other thing to remember on the speed is that
you're probably not going to pick up your instrument tomorrow and comfortably
play at the speed you ended on today. You were probably at it for quite some
time today and you were good and warmed up. So when starting fresh tomorrow,
dial down a little. You'll get back up there quick enough.
Lastly, it is also possible, depending on your ability and the difficulty
of the piece, that you've bitten off more than you can chew. That doesn't
necessarily mean you should give up on a piece. It probably does mean,
however, that you should work on something easier and go back to the
hard one when you've built up your skills some more.