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The Art of the Metronome

If you've been following my practice journals, you will recall that - tragically - my metronome has been broken. And in the absence of some sort of metronome repair service - or indeed, the skill to repair it myself - I was forced to think fast (i.e. buy a new one).

So arrived my new metronome and very pleased I was - so much so that I used it in my piano lesson yesterday. However my pupil struggled a little.

This, however, is not uncommon, and so here I emphasise the importance of practicing with a metronome, including when to practice and how.

Jack Mitchell Smith metronome piano practice macclesfield Congleton pianist musician

Choosing a Metronome

If you go for a clockwork metronome as I do, you'll be hard pushed to find one that doesn't look stunning. But aside from making sure that it blends in nicely with your piano and decor in the music room, there are some important things to look out for;

  • Volume: most clockwork metronomes are designed for practice against acoustic instrument - like pianos! Acoustic pianos are very loud, and so the metronome in turn has to be loud. For this reason, it very likely is. Just bear this in mind, however, if you are choosing a digital metronome. These can be more a 'beep' than a 'click' which - at a volume to compete with your piano - can be extremely shrill, not to mention annoying!

  • Measures: You'll not find a metronome without a bell anymore, and they will usually come in measures of 2, 3, 4 and 6 (or 'off' i.e. 0).

  • Tempo Markings: Naturally you'll have your numbers - BPM - but it's a good idea to keep an eye out for a metronome that states different tempo markings. Remember these days that not all notated music uses BPM and many use Italian or German terms to denote tempo. If you're unsure what any mean, the metronome comes in extremely useful to immediately reference it against BPM and hear the desired speed.

Working a Metronome

There really is no great skill to setting a metronome off!

Make sure it is wound up. Set your measures as needs be (for example - to 4 if playing a piece in 4/4, 3 for 3/4 of 0 for a piece with changing time signatures), slide the weight up or down the pendulum to match up with the appropriate tempo, remove the wedge from underneath the metronome, wind the metronome up if necessary (don't force it once it winds fully) and start the pendulum swinging!

The Importance of Practising with a Metronome

So now you've got your metronome up and running! Let's think about situations in which we would use it to practice:

Scales and Technical Exercises

The whole point of scales, arpeggios, chromatic scales, broken chords and the countless technical studies that are out there are so that you can develop a strength and discipline within your fingers, leading to a discipline within your performance when necessary.

In order to translate these forward, these exercises need to be tight and even, both rhythmically and dynamically. Taking it slowly is a great way to start, gradually building up the speed as more confidence is developed.

Don't forget that it is perfectly normal to stumble over yourself when you slow down - even if you think you play them perfectly at a quicker tempo!

The metronome is teaching you discipline with rhythm and with the finger's approach to the keyboard.

Intricate Pieces of Music

It stands to reason, therefore, that if scales and other exercises and technical studies are supposed to be even and tight then so do passages or complete pieces of music that rely on intricacy within the fingers. This can be from any era. For example Baroque music might have a lot of ornamentation such as trills and turns on notes that are to be played rapidly enough as is, whereas Romantic music might have bars of rapid semiquavers that jump between octaves in one hand. Jazz music, on the other hand, may feature a succession of unfamiliar chordal structures that don't feel natural to play straight away and so need some attention.

And here comes the metronome, once again to the rescue. Starting slow and building up helps to build up muscle memory. Muscle memory can, within reason, be sped up as it becomes more confident, but it is not always something that can be established if you attempt to attack a piece of music at its in intended tempo or intricacy.

In other words, if you wish to play a piece of music marked 'allegro', you'll do yourself far more favours and pick up the piece faster (not to mention play it better in the long run) if you start learning it slower rather than jumping in at an allegro pace - even if you feel you have a grasp on most of it. Unless you actually pick apart a piece of music and slow it down, you won't give every bar and passage the right amount of care, and can lead to an inconsistent performance.

Regimented Pieces of Music

As well as discipline in rhythm between the fingers, the metronome teaches us discipline within the overall performance.

Take the Baroque music era again, for instance. This era of music is typified by rapid passages on the keyboard - usually semiquavers or even quicker - and they don't let us. Moreover, there's little to no tempo alteration within a Baroque piece, which leads to it having quite a regimented feel. This is something that a metronome can help you to achieve, and it is generally quite useful even in pieces of music that don't necessarily beg a regimented performance in the end because it allows us to consider our performance as something that needs to keep up. When practising without a metronome, it can be tempting to go back on ourselves and try and correct things. Needless to say, with a relentless click you have to keep going, and it gets us into a mindset of learning what many musicians use as a mantra when it comes to making a mistake - just carry on!

The Importance of Practising WITHOUT a Metronome

Get to Know the Piece First

Unless you were specifically testing and practising your sight reading, it wouldn't do you any favours to sit down with a brand new piece of music that you intend to learn properly and put the metronome on straight away. Not even if you put it on very slow.

In order to get the best results, you need to have a fair enough understanding of the passages you will be practising with a metronome, however they don't want to be perfect. If you know it too well then it can have the reverse effect. Be able to play a piece or a passage of music from beginning to end before you employ the metronome - even if you have stumbles and falters. The metronome can then be used to identify or further identify problem areas, as they will show up more with a basic understanding.

The same goes for scales and technical exercises.

Practice Half and Half

Once you start practising with a metronome, it's essential that you don't rely on the metronome for every single practise run you do. If you do, you'll find it rather odd when you come to taking the click out of your performance.

This doesn't mean that you have to go full steam ahead once the metronome is off - you can stick to the same tempo, but what you need to make sure you don't lose sight of is your own discipline with tempo and - more specifically - keeping the piece tight. Sometimes when we take the metronome out, it can be tempting to rush. Even when we start at the same tempo, it can feel instinctive to pull forward. So try and get into the habit of using the metronome for half of your practice session and using your 'internal metronome' for the other half!

Consider the End Game of a Piece of Music

Of course, it may be the case that you don't need to use a metronome to practice a piece of music at all!

There is such a thing as artistic license in numerous pieces of music. Think of pieces from the Romantic era - the like of Chopin with his rise and fall of tempo and dynamic, use of subtle pauses. Rits and ralls etc.

Don't get me wrong, however. Romantic music, if we continue with this example, is littered with intricacies of its own, many of which will require their own focus in which the metronome can definitely help (remember my point earlier!), BUT if you rely on a very rigid tempo for practising then it can actually do more damage in the long run when you attempt to put the expression back into the music.

If you think a piece of music just requires you to go with the flow then you might just get away with it!


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