Thursday, 11 October 2012

How to Benefit from your Metronome

It's fair to say that most musicians have a metronome, but few make regular use of it. Metronomes tend to stay hidden away in a corner of a cupboard or music case, only to be used as a last resort when the tempo of a piece is completely unknown and can't be guessed. Even then they are swiftly replaced, after scaring you with how fast your piece is actually meant to go. But a metronome doesn't need to be your enemy, like a school gym instructor cracking the metaphorical whip as you struggle to keep up with the pace that he sets. Rather, a metronome can be very useful in developing a fluent and regular technique.
          Of course, the first and most obvious use of a metronome is one that I have already touched upon, namely giving you an indication of how fast a piece should go. This tells you what you should aim for if it is a fast piece, or if it is a slow piece then it can tell you to relax a bit more and take your time. But this idea of the 'correct' tempo, as specified precisely at the top of the music, should always be taken with a pinch of salt. It should never be seen as more than a guide, something to aim for. More often than not, that is its only purpose, and a lot of the time it is simply a suggestion of the editor and should therefore not be taken too literally. The fact is, the correct tempo is the tempo at which you feel comfortable playing the piece and can do so fluently and expressively. Don't let the metronome marking tempt you into trying to play at a speed that you cannot yet manage.
          In fact, the important point to remember when playing along with a metronome is to never set it too fast. If you can't keep up with its beat then it is because its beat is too quick, and not because you are too slow. Set the metronome at a tempo that is achievable, for this will encourage you to play each note accurately rather than quickly, as well as letting you get used to the correct rhythms and fingering patterns. Only when you can play the piece well at a slower speed can you try speeding it up (if indeed it needs speeding up).
          A key quality that can be gained through appropriate use of a metronome is rhythmic evenness. When playing a piece that contains complex sections, it is very tempting to speed up on the easy bits and slow down for the difficult bits - a bad habit that must be eliminated. In William Waterhouse's book 'Bassoon', he recommends 'adopting a speed no faster than one commensurate with accuracy - however slow this may at first prove to be - with the object of avoiding mistakes at any cost'. So you should choose a tempo at which you can perform the whole of the piece or section accurately, and stick with that speed for the whole section. Only when you can play it well slowly can you increase the overall speed evenly. The metronome can help here again, making sure you stick with the comfortable speed you have chosen. It stops you from speeding up and slowing down at inappropriate points merely to accommodate technical difficulties.
          This is not ideal for expressive purposes, for in performance it is important to realise the power of appropriate tempo fluctuations and rubato. So another crucial thing when practising with a metronome is to know when to leave it and allow yourself freedom to push and pull tempos around. It should be clear, though, that it is only possible to add artistic tempo fluctuations once you can play the whole piece accurately at an average tempo.
          Finally, there is a particular technique that I use when practising technical passages that makes great use of a metronome. Occasionally you will find a small section - maybe just a bar or two - in a piece that is giving you problems. Perhaps you can play everything else at an ideal brisk tempo, but that one bar is holding the whole thing back. You need a way of getting that specific bit up to speed whilst still maintaining accuracy.
          The way I do this is to set my metronome at a tempo at which I can easily play the offending section. In fact, I may actually set it a little slower. Also bear in mind at this point the tempo you would ultimately like to reach. Now play just that bar or two along with the metronome at your slow speed. If you find that you can't get it right, decrease the tempo by about 5 bpm. If you can play it right, increase the tempo by 5 bpm. Continue like this, getting gradually faster, until you find yourself playing that bit at your target tempo.
           Remember that if you reach a tempo where you can't play it accurately, drop the tempo by 5 bpm. This may be frustrating at first, but it will ensure that you aim for accuracy first and speed second. Only when you are comfortable at that speed can you increase it by 5 bpm.
          If you are not completely exhausted by the time you do get it up to tempo, then you can benefit from an extension of the exercise. This time you are going to do the reverse: start at the fast tempo and decrease the tempo by 5 bpm each time until you get back to a really slow speed. This will make sure that your fingers are still executing the correct patterns fluently despite having reached a new tempo.
          To summarise, there is one crucial message that I would like you to take away from this: if you are practising with a metronome, never set its tempo too high. It should never be the case that you are trying to keep up with an unrealistic speed. If you bear that in mind then there is no reason why you and your metronome should not live together in blissful peace and harmony.

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