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.

Cheating

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.

Last Notes

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.