A metronome is a must-have accessory for every musician. It can help you speed up your music or slow it down. It can help you fix your technique or line up a complicated rhythm. It can help you prepare to play in an ensemble or train your inner pulse so your solo music has a steady flow.
But just having the metronome on while you practice won’t necessarily help you attain any of these results. The metronome isn’t a magic cure. It’s a tool, and as with any tool, you need to know how to use it.
In order for you to get the most benefit from working with your metronome, it is helpful to know what your metronome can’t do for you.
Metronomes Can’t Count
I was working with a student some years ago who couldn’t figure out what the problem with her rhythm was. Her music seemed out of rhythm somehow. In her lesson, I told her that she needed to work with a metronome to keep the beat of her music steady. “I use the metronome every day,” she told me. “I’m exactly with the metronome beat. How could this be wrong?”
I suggested that she show me exactly how she was working with the metronome. She was correct; her playing matched the metronome precisely. The problem was that sometimes the metronome lined up with the quarter notes and at other times in the same piece, it lined up with the eighth note. She was matching the metronome, just not with the same note value all the time. What she wasn’t doing was counting.
Counting and the metronome is not an either-or proposition. You need both. The metronome keeps the pulse steady and your counting keeps track of the pulse. My student was mistaking a steady click for a steady beat. Once she started counting, she saw the errors immediately and was able to fix them easily.
Metronomes Can’t Listen For You
Our world is distracting. Our phones buzz and chirp; our computers beep and click. The background noise in our world is constant, and we learn to ignore it and to focus in spite of it. Unfortunately, we ignore the metronome at our peril.
When you’re deep into your practice, trying to play the right notes with the right fingers, add in the dynamics and make music of it all, it’s easy to ignore the constant click of your metronome. Naturally though, ignoring the metronome allows you to put in some extra time where you need it whether the music calls for it or not.
Listening actively to the metronome is how you learn to accurately predict the placement of the next beat. That accuracy is your inner metronome. Once you can keep a steady inner pulse, your playing will show a stronger sense of rhythm and meter. It will be calmer and flow better, with fewer tempo fluctuations.
As you practice with the metronome, be sure to listen to the metronome, so you can begin to predict and match the click. This is the same skill that expert chamber musicians and symphony players develop. They learn to listen to what is happening around them. to predict what will happen next and play to it.
Metronomes Have a Switch
Your metronome can’t help you if you don’t use it. Flip the switch and turn it on. Choose the tempo you want and listen to it for a moment before you begin to play. Hear, sing or tap the OPENING of the piece to make sure you have internalized the tempo. Count a measure or two and then begin to play. Keep counting; keep listening.
Then you will see what your metronome can do for you.