The Metronome, used wisely, can be a valuable tool for discovering and solving a problem with rhythm or technique, but…
… We need to talk about WHEN and HOW to use the metronome appropriately.
If you are playing the right notes, but your music just doesn’t seem to flow, you almost certainly have one or all of the following issues:
- You do not have a clear mental conception (aural, visio-spatial, kinesthetic) of what you want to play.
- Your conception or perception of the rhythm is distorted. In other words, you mistakenly think a note is “here” within the form and meter when it is really “there”.
- Unnecessary tension or awkwardness in your physical execution is upsetting your rhythm.
Playing along with a metronome can help diagnose the problem in two ways: First, by letting you know if you are playing the notes where in the metrical structure you intend to play them. Second, by highlighting places where a technical insecurity creates a tear in the canvas of time.
That said, use the metronome as needed while keeping the following points in mind:
Point #1. A mechanical metronome generates a series of undifferentiated clicks only. In other words, a mechanical metronome does not know and cannot tell you where “the 1” is. An electronic metronome, drum machine, or rhythm track that emphasizes “the 1” solves this problem.
Point #2. At extremely slow tempos, it is extremely difficult to anticipate when the next pulse will arrive because the metronome provides no rhythmic cues in-between the pulses. COUNTING THE METER OUT LOUD (for example: 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &…) along with the metronome solves this problem.
Point #3. COUNTING THE METER OUT LOUD is such a powerful awareness-builder that you should be doing it routinely anyway. In fact, the metronome may not be required at all. So, count the meter out loud while you are learning a new piece and see what you discover!
Point #4. When studying-practicing one hand at a time, try clapping time in your lap with your non-playing hand.
Point #5. Don’t get “metronome-happy”. For some kinds of music, there is such a thing as playing too straight! While it is okay to play with the metronome in order to diagnose and solve a problem, the metronome and counting are just training wheels that should be abandoned as soon as you understand what you are playing and start to work on developing your interpretation.
Point #6. Music as-written can never represent the full expression of music as-performed. Playing with “good time” is measured by the coherence of fully formed musical ideas, not by the exact alignment of isolated events on rigid timeline. Such coherence comes from a unified expression of the entire musical phrase, NOT from machine-like precision. Natural-sounding music breathes and ebbs and flows… ever sensitive to the larger artistic context.
Point #7. Always record yourself and listen to the playback immediately. This is the best way to know if your musical intentions were met… and if what you think you heard and felt while you were playing is actually what happened.
In summary, the metronome, used appropriately, can be a valuable teacher, but do not let it become a tyrant. Use it as needed to diagnose a blind spot with rhythm or to solve a technical problem, but do not become a slave to the ticker. The reason to be able to play accurately in time is so that you can go beyond robotic precision to play musically and artistically!