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."
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