The trouble with metronomes…

Cross-posted from the Midwest Musical Imports Blog

There’s at least a dozen jokes about metronomes, but they can be one of the most helpful tools for a musician to play with technical and rhythmical accuracy. There’s more to using a metronome than just setting the metronome to performance tempo and attempting to keep up. Here are some strategies for using  metronome more effectively.

1. Start way slower than you think you need to. You’ll clean up your fingering and embouchure technique greatly if you practice at VERY slow and controlled speeds. To make sure you’re not speeding up, lock that metronome at a subdivided tempo and stay with it.

2. Increase the tempo gradually. If you’ve practiced slowly you’ve only begun the workout. As in the linked blog post from Bulletproof Musician, don’t just practice slowly and then go full speed. Gradually increment the tempo 4-8 bpm at a time and keep focusing on the clear rhythm and technique.

3. Try some rhythmic shifting. This is a great tactic that works in a lot of musical styles with “simple” time signatures (i.e. 2/4 4/4, but not 6/8). Set the metronome but consider the click to be on the off-beats instead of the strong beat. So in a 2/4 bar, the metronome is not on the quarter value, but the “&” of 1 and 2.    1 & 2 &
You’ll be surprised at how much this locks the time in during the middle of each beat. It’s easy to rush the front half of a beat when running 16th notes, for instance, and having the metronome hit the off-beats in a strong way somehow keeps us better on track. This is actually different than simply setting the metronome to 8th note values. I find this especially helpful in getting a better “feel” or “groove” going in very rhythmic pieces like Bach, Telemann, Vivaldi, and some faster Mozart and Haydn.

4. Make sure you can hear the metronome. This might be silly, but if there’s a chance that you can lose focus and get off-sync from the metronome it’s not going to do you any good. My first thought is to make sure you’re playing soft enough to hear the metronome – practice in a controlled way both rhythmically and dynamically. But in case you simply can’t hear the metronome, get one that has a more solid sound that grabs your attention, or that is simply louder. You can also get a metronome with an earpiece to make sure you don’t lose the sound of it (but please don’t damage your hearing by turning an earbud up too loud).

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