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I call this article to order!
Back when I was in 4-H, we had to abide by Robert’s Rules of Order for our meetings. Ever since 1876, The Rules have allowed important decisions to be made, even by large groups of people who may not like each other very much. I’m hearing a motion to get on with the metronome article.
Well, did you know that there’s a set of “Robert’s” Rules for the metronome as well? That’s right, Robert Chen, concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony! We need these rules because we’re out to bring order to fingers, notes, and rhythms. And some of these guys don’t get along too well.
Soon after I joined the Chicago Symphony, I asked Robert about metronome practice, because I had heard that he didn’t do it the way everyone else did. And since I loved the results he got, I had to know his secret. He obliged. Years later I thanked him for transforming my metronome practice, and he got a funny look on his face. He had no recollection of the conversation and told me I was “imagining things”. That’s why his name is in quotes up above!
All Robert would give me during this second conversation was that the rule is “whatever works”. But I know that our earlier discussion ranged far and wide on the topic of metronomes, so here are “Robert’s” rules, with explanations to follow.
- Play with the metronome as if it were another player
- Before you turn the metronome on, decide when you will turn it off
- Favor the big beats
- Favor the off-beats
- “Work it up” only as a last resort
Now, the explanations:
1. Play with the metronome as if it were another player
When you rehearse with a pianist or a string quartet, there’s an inherent expectation that everyone will play together. To play apart from your colleagues shows a lack of control; to continue to do so shows a lack of respect and musical standards. Yet how often do you allow yourself to play approximately, perhaps for minutes on end, with the metronome?
Think of making music with the metronome. Actually breathe and give a natural cue when you start, as if you were playing with another person. Don’t settle for sloppy attacks and cutoffs. If you play a strong beat with the metronome, you shouldn’t even hear the “click”. Furthermore, you should expect not to hear it, because you’re so used to being exactly in time. The metronome, therefore, should never be “in the background”. Keep it in the foreground, and remember that any time it’s switched on, it’s an equal partner in your music-making.
2. Before you turn the metronome on, decide when you will turn it off
Have you ever found yourself in a hallway of practice rooms for ten or twenty minutes, perhaps waiting for a lesson or a rehearsal to begin? I certainly have. And many times I’ve heard the same metronome beat for the entire ten or twenty minute stretch! Few things do as much damage to your internal pulse. Remember that the metronome is a tool, and thus a means to an end. That end is a strong internal pulse that you can push and pull, but that always returns to center at your command. Playing with a constant click in the background robs you of the ability to develop your own innate rhythm, which is after all the only thing you can rely on in performance.
Therefore, before you hit the “on” button, decide what measure or section you are going to check, then check it! Play the section with the metronome to see if you are lining up exactly with the clicks. If you aren’t, pinpoint which beat(s) aren’t exact, whether you’re ahead or behind, and by how much. Repeat until you’ve collected as much information as you need, then switch the metronome off. Work the section using your new information and your own internal pulse. Then check again with the metronome to see the results of your great work. This kind of work will translate to performance.
3. Favor big beats
When possible, set the metronome to a larger note value: half notes instead of quarters, whole notes, even 2 bars at a time! It used to be that only people with expensive metronomes could take them below 40 or so. But now, with a metronome app available for every computer and smartphone, anyone can explore these slow beats. Without the metronome doing the in-between work for you, you must strengthen your internal rhythm to line up with the metronome on that next big beat. Of course, this won’t tell you whether all of your rhythms inside the big beat are true. But used in conjunction with smaller beat practice, this is a powerful way to shore up your sense of pulse while preserving musical freedom. This rule is the best answer to anyone who claims that practicing with a metronome makes you play like a robot!
4. Work the off-beats
Rules 3 and 4 complement each other. Rule 3 gives you the big picture, but doesn’t give you the details in between. Enter Rule 4, which is all about weak beats. Let’s say you’re working on a passage that’s in 4/4 time, quarter=100. Following Rule 3, you put the metronome on 25 for the bar. Now using Rule 4, you keep the metronome right there on 25, but place the click in the middle of the bar. In other words, play the downbeat halfway in between two clicks. This feels very strange at first, but it’s a fun way to mix things up while continuing to give you new and valuable information.
You can also use this technique with a fast pulse, by placing the click on off-beats. For example, in a fast passage of 16th notes where the quarter equals 120, you would keep the metronome at 120 but place the click on the 3rd 16th of each beat. Many people find out all kinds of things that they would never have learned with “normal” metronome practice, such as the fact that they linger on the first note of each beat and manage to make up the time on the other three notes!
More daring souls can even place the metronome on the 2nd 16th of the beat, or the 4th 16th! To do this, it again helps to think of the metronome as another player. For example, to place the metronome on the 4th 16th of a beat, you imagine that the metronome-player has a 16th-note pickup to the beat. Now the metronome is really coming to life!
5. “Work it up” only as a last resort
“You need to work this up with the metronome.” We’ve all heard those dreaded words. There goes your fun evening out! Instead you’ll be slaving away in a practice room, the clicks steadily, inexorably sounding closer and closer together. This diabolical technique is even featured in the movie The Red Violin, where a young violinist’s progress is measured by his ability to keep up with a primitive metronome.
But is this really necessary? It is usually true that it is easier to play a passage slowly than it is to play it quickly. But wouldn’t it be wise, before turning that metronome on and setting it to “Adagio”, to determine what’s preventing you from playing the passage up to tempo in the first place? Surely you can play some notes up to tempo. And you can play some groups of notes faster and more accurately than others. The tricky spots, whether they’re shifts, string crossings or double-stops, demand various specific practice techniques; it would be enormously inefficient to work all the notes of the passage in the same way and to the same degree.
Remember that the metronome is a tool and that its best use is to check the consistency of your rhythm. Therefore, before you switch the box on, decide what needs to improve and then improve it! Use all the other weapons in your arsenal. The metronome can come out when you can play the passage at a reasonable tempo and wish to check the integrity of your rhythm.
“Working it up” does have its time and place, however. Once you’ve solved the major difficulties of a passage (by fixing inappropriate fingerings, planning bow usage, listening for pitch inconsistency) you may still need help getting out of the “rut” of a slower practice tempo. In this case, bumping up the metronome incrementally can help you get used to a performance tempo without destroying the careful work that you’ve done. But “working it up” as your first line of attack? You may only ingrain the very problems that are holding you back in the first place!
There’s a certain type of answer that professionals in any discipline give when asked about equipment. “What’s the best camera?” The one you’ll have with you. “What’s the best ingredient for this dish?” The one you can find locally and in season. You get the idea. So when it comes to recommending a metronome, one answer is to use your smartphone, because you’ll always have it with you.
But smartphones have their limitations. For one, they’re rarely loud enough. Plus, I’ve always enjoyed the tactile sensation of a real metronome: turning the dial, pressing the buttons. I don’t know, it just feels like I’m accomplishing something!
So my favorite for a while has been one by Korg that they call the True Tone. It’s not as compact as some because the left side of it is a tubular speaker that really puts out a satisfying thwack! It’s decidedly not a puny beep. Plus, you can control the tempo with an easy-to-use dial. Much better than a touch screen, in my book. If you want something loud and dependable, give it a try! Here it is at Amazon:
Ever since I started abiding by “Robert’s” Rules, I find that I use the metronome just as often as I used to, but for less time. That’s because passages improve a lot more quickly! I know that you’ll find the same to be true in your practice, and when you do, don’t thank me: thank Robert. Even if he pretends not to know what you’re talking about.