Establishing Good Metronome Habits and Ways to Make it Fun

by William Russell


Originally published to AllianceBrass.com



Let’s be honest. You don’t like your metronome and your metronome doesn’t like you. But deep down you know that it holds the key to being a serious musician through the real mastery of time, tempo, and rhythm.

The metronome’s usefulness as a reference is undeniable. It doesn’t lie. Oh, wait a sec…let me check the batteries. Yeah, it doesn’t lie. But what are you really training when you play in time with the clicks of a metronome? Steadiness, maybe? Dependence, definitely! Barring a commercial recording session, you are unlikely to play many performances where a metronome will be on hand to directly assist you. Therefore, your practice sessions should aim to train INDEPENDENCE in all things relating to tempo. Now, if you thought I meant independence from the metronome, I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but you’re going to be using it more than ever. Let’s take a quick look at two skills that musicians might be leaving on the table if they ignore good metronome habits:


1) TEMPO MEMORY - 

Have you ever started a piece of music and immediately noticed that you were too fast or too slow? Have you ever noticed how this is amplified by adrenaline in a performance setting? Maybe you didn’t notice at all! Training tempo memory is a matter of internalization and should be considered an important long-term goal.

To start, spend some time practicing at the tempos that can easily be measured by referencing a clock’s second hand (30, 60, 120, 180). This could take hours, days, or weeks, but don’t move ahead until you have truly internalized these tempos and can perform them on demand. From there expand to related tempos through metric modulation (40, 45, 80, 90, 150, 160 etc).  

Not all pieces have tempos that are so easily referenced via metric modulation though. Try associating more esoteric tempos with famous pieces or recordings that you can easily recall. If you have a favorite recording of a certain piece, go ahead and take the time to check the tempo so that you can recall it later. You may have also noticed that a lot of strangely specific tempo markings come up more frequently than others: For example, why do composers seem to ask for 88 and 92 more often than 90? If you can build a mental library of these “famous” tempos, suddenly trying to pull a neighboring tempo out of thin air becomes a much more accurate and reliable affair.


2) SUBDIVISION - 

Many musicians are good at playing on the beat, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that what happens between the clicks just falls into place automatically. Checking up on the health of your subdivision is a lot of fun to work on and here’s a challenging way to do it:

Set your metronome to the tempo of the piece you are working on. Easy so far. Now forget everything you know about metronomes and mentally assign the clicks to the OFFBEATS, leaving your downbeats silent. Talk about disorienting! Just play some scales at first to get comfortable with it. When you are ready to attempt an etude you will find yourself having to pay far more attention than usual to the placement of your attacks and cut-offs in order to keep your rhythms accurate. 

These two activities are just a sample of how to train and challenge your sense of time. In the long run, using our metronome to find an accurate tempo is okay, but are you able to maintain that tempo when your metronome only clicks once per measure? How about once every other measure? Once every 4 measures? Can you play a piece of music with the same steadiness as your favorite electronics-driven pop song? Is that is a skill you can afford to walk into an audition without?

For more exercise ideas be sure to talk to your friendly neighborhood percussionist. And if you’re curious to know what it’s like to play with a metronome clicking once every 4 measures, check out this clip of a Victor Wooten bass masterclass and find out why he practices like that for hours at a time:



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