People who are learning how to play musical instruments frequently are encouraged by their teachers to practice with a metronome.
Those who are new to music lessons might see this as an unnecessary complication. After all, they're just trying to get the fingering right or they just play a song without making any mistakes.
However, the reality is that practicing with a metronome can help you to accomplish these goals. It also will make you a better overall musician.
Let's take a look at the humble but powerful metronome and how it can improve your performance as a musician.
What Is a Metronome?
Truly accomplished musicians are able to play a piece of music at many different tempos. This demonstrates the musician's control over the instrument as she must be able to play just as accurately and compellingly at a slow speed as at a rapid one. Chances are good that this accomplished musician has spent a great deal of time practicing with a metronome.
A metronome is designed to produce a click at regular time intervals. The user sets how many beats per minute they would like the metronome to sound.
For centuries, musicians have relied on mechanical metronomes that operate by being wound up. A pendulum swings back and forth, and a metal attachment on the pendulum can be moved up or down by the user to make the tempo slower or faster.
Today, more musicians are turning to electric metronomes, which may be found in most music stores and online. Basic models have buttons to control the tempo and a power switch. More sophisticated models have more features like volume control, a tuner and a variety of tones.
Many apps also provide musicians with a handy digital metronome, and if you are playing a digital piano, then the instrument may have a metronome built in.
Extra Bells and Whistles
While some musicians prefer a basic metronome, others find value in having some additional features. These are some of things that you might want to look for as you search for the perfect metronome:
- Counting: This feature involves a computerized voice that says the counts. Musicians who feel lost in a piece or feel like they can't keep up might like this feature.
- Flashing light: Visual learners may find this feature especially helpful as the light flashes steadily to the beat.
- Tap: Some metronomes have a button that you can tap at your preferred beat. The machine automatically starts clicking at the tempo you tapped into the button.
- Different tones: Most metronomes click, but there are models that allow the user to select from a variety of tones. For example, it may be helpful to have the downbeat set to a different tone.
- Meter changes: You may be able to set a metronome with different tones to a certain meter. The machine usually defaults to 4/4 time, so the metronome makes beat one a particular tone and uses another tone for beats two, three and four. If you're playing in 3/4 time, then only beats two and three will play in the alternate tone.
Why Use a Metronome?
The main reason to use a metronome is so that you can internalize the beat. Accordingly, practicing with a metronome is incredibly useful for people who don't feel like they have an innate sense of rhythm. Even if you do feel like you have a strong inner pulse, it can be helpful to spend time just with the metronome, without trying to play your instrument.
For just a few minutes, listen to and feel the steady beat of the metronome. Incorporate some movement with the beat. It could be tapping your foot, clapping your hands, nodding your head or swaying. The more you do this exercise, the more the beat becomes second nature to you.
This is valuable because it helps you internalize where the beat is in the music and how each beat is divided. The goal is to be able to feel that pulse ticking away underneath anything that you might be playing.
Moreover, practicing with a metronome helps you develop a better sense of how each beat may be subdivided into eighth notes, sixteenth notes or triplets.
Another excellent reason to practice with a metronome is that it helps you to build speed. Have you ever been astounded by the speed and grace with which a world-class pianist or guitarist is able to play a complicated passage of music?
Chances are good that the musician has spent years practicing with a metronome running in the background.
It's also a sure thing that the musician didn't start out playing at the speed at which he's performing today. He probably started slow because he needed to train his body and mind to cope with the demands of playing fast.
When you practice with a metronome, the best thing you can do is to slow the tempo down to well below performance speed. Ideally, your piece feels fairly easy to play at this speed. Increase the speed gradually until you reach the tempo at which the piece is meant to be played.
If you're playing a simple piece, you may be able to speed up in a single session, but if you're dealing with something really challenging, it could take months to reach the ultimate tempo.
That's why the metronome is such a critical piece of equipment. It gives you a solid, predictable foundation, and you can ratchet up the speed in subtle increments. If you weren't using a metronome, you might try to speed up too much or find that you are lagging behind.
Becoming accustomed to practicing with a metronome also improves your performance in a group or ensemble. That's because it keeps a steady tempo, reducing the likelihood that you will try to rush or drag the tempo. Accordingly, you'll be able to play at the same tempo as everyone else in the group, improving the overall performance.
Tips for Successful Practice with a Metronome
The more intentional and focused you are in your practice sessions, the better and more noticeable your progress is likely to be. Use these tips to ensure that you get the most out of each session:
- Consider isolating just a few problem measures to practice with the metronome
- Experiment until you find a tempo at which you can play those problem measures perfectly
- Keep practicing at this tempo until you play the passages through three times without errors
- Increase the tempo by four beats per minute
- Keep practicing at this tempo until you can play the passages through three times without errors
- If this tempo seems too fast, reduce the tempo by two beats per minute
Basically, the student keeps repeating this process until she is playing at performance speed. The challenge then is to play the piece without using the metronome. Next, turn the metronome back on.
Were you playing at the correct tempo?
Be certain to make notes in a practice journal about the tempo you ended with so that you know where to pick up in the next session.
Polishing for a Performance
Metronomes typically are not used during performances, so it's essential for musicians to rehearse their piece without a metronome. During practice sessions leading up to a performance, it may be helpful to turn on the metronome to get the beat into your head. Then, turn off the metronome and play your piece.
Hold the tempo in your head at the end of your piece, and turn on the metronome to see if you kept the beat going. If you do this several times, you'll find yourself relying less on the metronome.
Find the Beat with Prodigies
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Through the lessons and activities that are available here, children can get a head start on developing their sense of internal rhythm. This will serve your child well if he ever decides to pursue lessons on a musical instrument or even if she is inspired with a lifelong enjoyment of music.
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