The standard response to "I have trouble with rhythm" these days seems to be "use a metronome." Indeed, in a recent post one of our most esteemed and talented colleagues advocated just that. Working somewhat from a position of Devil’s Advocate I actually strongly disagree with anything other than minimal use of the metronome for a few very specific purposes.
The blanket recommendation to use it "all the time" if you have a "rhythm" problem is, in my experience, extremely counterproductive. This is literally my experience since when I was young I relentlessly used the metronome with much of my practice. If it does serve the function of improving rhythm then I would be the most precise person on the planet. On the contrary, I would say it weakened my overall rhythmic system in much the same way taking drugs for long term treatment of some ailments will weaken the system and exacerbate the problem.
The problem is, as always, identifying what the problem really is. Does the person concerned actually have a problem with "pulse" (which is not exactly rhythm to my mind) or with placing units within this pulse or subdividing complex patterns, which after all, can stump even seasoned professionals sometimes.
Beginning with actual regularity of pulse, it is doubtful if it is a problem. Someone who does not have this internal regularity would drop dead. The heart beats, we walk, run and some even manage to dance although the skill eludes me to this date. This then is where to start. If you want to play with a regular pulse then put everything aside and reconnect with walking and moving in general... Why put a metronome in front of a kid if they could simply work on walking and clapping and other kinds of natural coordination. If this cannot be integral to the playing itself then there is something wrong with the way the instrument is being played that is blocking things. It is not a lack of pulse or "rhythm."
Sometimes we just get out of focus because as adults we have spent so much time thinking about technique in isolation from the ebb and flow of the natural world. The best thing I think one can do is to re-find one’s natural voice. That is why players like Clayton Haslop so strongly advocate counting aloud. I use this approach with student who apparently has no rhythm and the change within a short space of time is remarkable. I consider it one of the most powerful teaching and learning strategies available. I think it brings back into focus all our natural ability to pulse even if one’s first (and later) attempts are distorted by the effort it requires. Another example of how paying attention to an aspect of the body superficially distinct from playing technique shows up areas of considerable tension that maybe bets disposed of.
Another problem with the metronome is that it is rather like a clock that has stopped. It is correct but only twice a day. Put it another way, it may give you some kind or regular noise but this in no sense means that what one is ding in between is in anyway accurate.
Indeed, I would venture to suggest that it teaches profound inaccuracy for many in the following way. Player X feels they are not keeping a steady tempo in a passage of 8th notes. They dutifully put on the mm and play. Sure enough they are out of sync with the "beat" but the adjust to it every time they catch this. In other words. Like learning bad intonation they have simply learned the skill of not being correct and then adjusting towards correctness supplied by someone else.
I am actually "extremely" good at this as a result of many years of mm abuse even though my actually rhythmic impulse is average at best. This can be unnerving at times as I can make the most rapid adjustments to a conductors beat and have been praised quite frequently for this skill which is not a rhythmic skill at all. Rather it is a rapid reflex response to a visual cue- nothing more. Not only this, player x may well be playing the second 8th note in completely the wrong place. Indeed they are, because the first is never quite "right."
There is nothing in the beat of a mm which ensure that one is playing a rhythm within that tempo correctly and indeed, if the initial pulse of the group is lost in space the rest cannot be right anyway. It’s all relative. Only using the voice brings one back onto a coordinated pulse that integrates rhythm in a natural and flowing way as opposed to a fruitless striving for mechanical precision that does not actually exist because music actually should change tempo a great deal within an overall time frame. I consider the greatest exponents of this art to be Rubenstein, and Oistrakh.
Where does a mm excel? One obvious place is in learning to accelerate. If one has a difficult passage and wishes to speed it up in consistent increments then there is no better tool. Indeed, players often seem to limit themselves in the way they use it. One can be far more creative in speeding up, dropping back a little speeding up and various permutations of this in order to trick oneself into playing faster er, faster. Then there are cases where one might actually want to match a very mechanical beat to a very visual work out using bow length. I have the mm set at 6o for son file for sheer convenience but one could do a lot more than just have it keeping time. Try doing a son file with a slow beat and counting rhythms with the voice. Indeed, any combination of mm and voice is usually more useful than just mm alone.
But to go back to my original concern which prompted this post. I would say to a supposedly unrhythmical beginner not "use a mm," but rather "use your body and voice." Find out where the technical problem is that is distorting your rhythm. Practice slowly enough to resolve this and be able to count. If you need a mm to speed things up after that then so be it." But never assume a mm has much to do with your personal sense of rhythm or that it will make things better by default if you it going all the time during practice."
Buri, I thought I saw somewhere your expressed your reservation on using the metronome but this time I understand your point better. I’m curious what your esteemed colleague would say but for me, using a metronome gives me a structure. Maybe because I grew up with more lyrical and somewhat recitative sort of music (eg., various Chinese operas and soaring folk music), I have a tendency to change rhythm by hanging on to certain notes (expressive ones or the ones I like) too long. Also, using a metronome prevents slowing down or speeding up due to technical ease or difficulty, as you discussed in later part of your blog. Most of all, it helps me to be better structured: just get the basic down, to be able to play in tempo, and to get a clear idea what overall structure of the piece or what it is ‘traditionally’ performed. Of course, the great violinists can do whatever they want with the piece, including tempo variation. Amateurs like I myself should be fully aware of our limits, technically and musically. I’ll allow some tempo freedom only when I’ve actually learned the piece; that is, when I can play it in tune, in tempo, and by heart, or performance ready. Of course, doing it to my accompanist on stage is a different story;)
What Mr. Haslop suggested counting out loud is just wonderful. My teacher is also big on that but I can’t count more than three – a disability I’m sure ;)
Do I sound argumentative? I tend to do that when I try to think things through out loud. Anyway, I really like plain-speaking teachers (to use Jeremy Chance’s expression)so thank you, Buri, for your straightforward and timely direction! To me, rhythm is even more important than intonation or tone production. What you said make good sense and I’m taking notes and will keep thinking about it.
I love what you wrote here. This is something I've really been studying and experimenting with my students to get them to internalize underlying beats and dissect rhythms.
You've used Adventures in Violinland, haven't you? Have you tried out all the levels? I have had a whole lot of fun using the swaying exercises, the word rhythms, and especially how it gradually wades into more complicated stuff like conducting while chanting or saying the rhythms.
Conducting and singing/saying my part really helps my own practice, I've found.
Anyway, thanks for your blog entry. I'm all excited about counting now.
Buri - you might enjoy this short story written by a member of my community orchestra: http://www.kenyonreview.org/issues/sf02/poliner.php
Yes-coordination is something that I need to work on constantly. Thank you for your insightful information. I will work on out loud counting-singing--
Tom- just beautiful;)
Counting aloud can be productive or a distraction, depending on the individual. You are right, the basic pulse is by no means the totality of the rhythm. It is however a good starting point. However, if the basic pulse is wrong so will be the subdivisions. Also, there is no rule saying one must use the metronome to count only one beat per measure.
Try setting it for eighth notes and see what happens. perhaps the rhythm is lost mostly at the end of a run of eighth notes, or only at the beginning. The point is the device is only a tool to help locate one's weaknesses which can then be addressed systematically. Incidentaly, I once spent two years in a combo playing with a "rhythm" machine. Yes, they have their limitaions, but for years afterward my sense of time was like a rock! One last thought: just as rests make up the other half of the music, so does rubato depend on a steady meter for contrast.
>The point is the device is only a tool to help locate one's weaknesses which can then be addressed systematically.
sorry. Can`t edit here...
I respectfully beg to differ about the voice being either useful or a distraciton on a kind of fifty fifty basis. I have not found a single person it hasn`t proved immensely useful with yet.
I do think I addressed the sisue of basic pulse in my comments about walking etc. Burton Kaplan proposes a useful approahc to using the mm which I think is great. He actually recommends using the aslowest pssoible beat and having the vlick occuring every couple of bars or whatever. This seems to me to be the most musicla approach.
LOVE the title line!
I agree, setting it to strike every couple of measures sounds like an exellent and creative use of a metronome. This is what we pay teachers for and where a good teacher's experience should be invaluable!
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March 17, 2008 at 12:19 AM · Thank you. I learn so much from your blogs.