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Nathan Cole

"Robert's" Rules of Metronome

March 20, 2011 at 5:51 PM


For my first blog post on, I share some guidelines for metronome practice, inspired by the concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony, Robert Chen.  Originally posted at

 I call this article to order! OK, I had to put Robert's name in quotes because when I asked him about his rules of the metronome last night, he said I was "imagining things". His official rule, therefore, is "whatever works". But I'm sure that years ago he gave me, if not rules, then ideas about how best to use the metronome in my practicing. So, as long as we all understand that he doesn't exactly endorse these rules, here they are, with explanations to follow:

1. Play with the metronome as if it were another player
2. Before you turn the metronome on, decide when you will turn it off
3. Favor the big beats
4. Favor the off-beats
5. "Work it up" only as a last resort

Now, the explanations:

1. Play with the metronome as if it were another player
Many times, when I ask a student to play a passage with the metronome, they'll do it (not really with the metronome) then look at me blankly. Not the response I was looking for.

If you're rehearsing with piano or 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 we allow ourselves to play approximately, for minutes on end, with that plastic box! Instead, make 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 "background". It is always foreground, a valuable tool and, when it's switched on, an equal partner in your music-making.

2. Before you turn the metronome on, decide when you will turn it off
I have sat outside practice rooms, perhaps waiting for a lesson to begin, where the metronome was on when I got there and was still on when I left 20 minutes later! Few things are as damaging 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 internal rhythm, which is after all the only thing you can rely on in performance.

Therefore, before you hit the "on" switch, decide what measure or section you are going to check, then check it! By "check it", I mean play the section with the metronome to see if you are lining up exactly with the beats of the metronome. If you aren't, pinpoint which beat(s) aren't exact, whether you're ahead or behind, and by how much.

Feel free to repeat until you've collected as much information as you need, then switch "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.

3. Favor the big beats
This really grows out of rule 2. 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 slooooow 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 "normal" metronome 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. Favor the off-beats
Rules 3 and 4 work together: placing the metronome on every downbeat ensures that you line up the strong beats, but it doesn't tell you anything about the middle of the bar. Enter rule 4, which instructs you to favor off-beats or other "weak" beats.

For example, the passage you just checked on the downbeats with a pulse of 24? Keep the metronome right there on 24, but place that beat in the middle of the bar. This feels very strange at first, but is 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, if you place the metronome on the 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 metronome 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, one with a "pickup" to your downbeat. To place the metronome on the 4th 16th of your beats, you would imagine that the metronome has a 16th-note pickup to your beat. The metronome comes alive!

5. "Work it up" only as a last resort
"You need to work this up with the metronome." We've all heard it, and as teachers, we've all said it. This is what we think of when we think of slaving away in a practice room. It's even featured in the movie The Red Violin, where the young man's progress is represented by his playing a difficult passage with faster and faster metronome beats!

Why do we do this? 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 surely you can play some groups of notes faster and more accurately than others. Those tricky spots, be they 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 tools 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. 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!

Since I started applying Robert's rules, I find that I use the metronome just as many days as I used to, but for less time. I also find that I improve a lot more quickly. I know that you'll find the same things true in your practice, and when you do, don't thank me! Thank "Robert".


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