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Divisive: Steinhardt on Metronomes

Emily Grossman

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Published: January 23, 2012 at 10:06 AM [UTC]

I don't recall how long ago it was that Arnold Steinhardt and I crossed paths--six, maybe seven years ago? We met over a book and some coffee, and an interesting tale about his life as a violinist in the Guarneri string quartet unfolded. I was immediately drawn into his style, and I knew that somehow, he and I had always been connected.

Okay, I confess, I've never met the man; I just entered into his life through his book, Indivisible by Four. It's just that he writes in such a way that I think perhaps we would be kindred spirits, and if ever we did meet, it would be as if we had always known each other. I felt the same way while reading his next book, Violin Dreams. Anyone who shares the same dreams I have can't possibly be anything but a similar soul.

Today, with lots of idle time between double stops and trills, I extensively explored the internet, where I stumbled upon his own blog, which contains his monthly entries. Comments allowed. This is so exciting, to be one click away from connecting with my secret hero...

But wait! What was this in his latest entry? Here, in discord to my own philosophical beliefs, he revealed his disdain for the metronome. Disdain for my beloved metronome? Suddenly, my idol faltered.

Compelled, I wrote a letter. Apologies, Arnold Steinhardt, that our meeting couldn't have been more affirming. My comment:

"Arnold, all this time I thought we were kindred spirits, and I finally stumble across your blog only to find I was mistaken: how could you not love the metronome? Someday, I shall have you over for dinner and introduce you to mine--charming personality, a bit of a conversation hog, but timingly witty. (Don't tell him you've heard that one before; it doesn't slow him down a bit.)"

From Tom Holzman
Posted on January 23, 2012 at 3:26 PM
Wonderful post. Steinhardt is a terrific violinist. But, like the rest of our heroes, he has feet of clay to some extent. He is still a terrific musician. By all means, however, introduce him to your metronome!
From Laurie Niles
Posted on January 23, 2012 at 3:53 PM
You can't argue with what he says though, metronomes are indeed awfully "metronomic"! They have their place, though. The picture of his head on the metronome is awesome, though!
From Tom Bop
Posted on January 23, 2012 at 7:49 PM

It's not a good sign when you feel so connected to someone you've never met, especially over the internet or through books. At least it's better than to someone on your local tv news (depending on who's on where you live). It can be a sign of loneliness, or that a part of your personality is not getting expressed through your other relationships. Please get help!

I wouldn't tell you all this, and I hope you'll excuse the intrusion, but I feel so connected to you through your blogs on that I know you'll understand.

From Shumin Lim
Posted on January 23, 2012 at 10:10 PM
Great blog as always, Emily!

I have to admit though that I am sold by Arnold Steinhardt's thoughts on the use of the metronome.

For scales, some etudes and mostly technical work, I still do insist that my children use the metronome. But as soon as they have learnt the "right" rhythms for any new repertoire they are learning, they need to have the natural inner pulse (instead of a pure mechanical beat) that matches the style of the piece and the shape of each phrase/passage.

The metronome sure has its place in the training of a musician. But maybe only to a certain extent. It's a good tool to help the "scientific" part of playing music, but it's also equally important for kids to learn the natural pulse of say a beating heart, a bouncing ball (and the reverse of that if there's such a thing), the rhythm of speech, a dance, breathing etc so they understand how to create accelerandos, ritardandos, rallentandos, allargandos, how to delay a note/chord by a millisecond to create suspense/drama, and how to play improvisatory passages like cadenzas.

Gosh, maybe this would be a topic as hot as with or without SR ;-)

From Emily Grossman
Posted on January 23, 2012 at 10:50 PM
I never use the metronome to teach rhythms. Its main purpose in my arsenol is speed drilling. For that, it's my favorite.

And, if you want to be a part of my inside joke, in case you missed it, I posted a series of blogs back in April of 2006 concerning my relationship with my metronome. I wrote them in response to an email that implied that no one wanted to read about metronomes. It was perhaps the most fun I've had with this blog.

(It was the April 8th entry, followed by all entries from the 15th through the 26th.)

From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on January 23, 2012 at 11:07 PM
Hello, Emily. I had been checking blogs daily for your next one, and lo and behold, it was about Arnold Steinhardt (and metronomes)! I have "Violin Dreams" at my bedside and have read it 3 times now. I plan to say more in a blog of my own, but to put it tersely, it's always worth reading what he has to say, even if you disagree. At least he's thought about what he has to say. Regarding metronomes: one of the last things my teacher told me at my last lesson of 2011 is that if people were dancing to the dances I was playing for her, they'd fall down. So I rushed out and bought a metronome. I don't know why she didn't tell me to do that long ago. It was a real eye-opener. (To be fair, she has given me speed drills and suggested a metronome, but I'm pretty good at keeping a steady beat.) However, I can see that they're not good for developing musicality, and I don't think mine is worth introducing to anyone. I'll have to go back and read your old blogs to see why yours is so charming.
From Shumin Lim
Posted on January 23, 2012 at 11:29 PM
Oh yes, you should see the sheer delight on my son's face when he tells me he can do the scales at 110 (or some crazy speed)!

Sorry I hadn't read yr earlier blog...will go hv a look now ;-)

From Emily Grossman
Posted on January 24, 2012 at 4:42 AM
SB! I didn't recognize you until just now! I was just reading your comments and responding without making the connection. :)

I could totally see Benedict taking on a speed drill challenge. Tell me, is that how he worked on the high arpeggios for the first movement of Vivaldi's Spring, or did he just loop it and gradually speed it up without one? His coordination was so impressive there!

From Emily Grossman
Posted on January 24, 2012 at 4:47 AM
Francesca, to view music as dancing is probably the best way to develop your rhythmic consistency, I think. A metronome gives only a tick, and if you're lucky, a waving tick, but it's the motion that really gives us a better understanding of why the beats are where they are. For instance, when you throw a ball and the beat of its bouncing gradually speeds up as the bounces become smaller, the rhythm changed because the motion changed, not the other way around.
From Shumin Lim
Posted on January 24, 2012 at 7:15 AM
Hi Emily,

Hehe, sorry for not identifying myself ;-)

For the solo arpegio section in Vivaldi's Spring, I think he just started by initial slow practice, then speeding up by doing the section in small groups fast, then chaining it all up in the end. He said it wasn't too hard since it was all the same pattern.

I used to be a metronome fanatic when he was younger, as the metronome was the only objective way I can prove to him that he was either playing too fast or too slow. I think he must be 4 or 5 years old when one day, he was so frustrated when practising a fast passage that he yelled out "the metronome is getting faster!"

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