How to Use a Metronome
Instrument, bow, stand, music, pencil--that's all you need when you sit down (or stand) to practice, right? Wrong. One of the most essential and useful tools for the wise, efficient practicer is this marvelous, magical machine: the metronome. The timekeeper. That thing that clicks.
As a string bassist who grew up classically trained, I was used to bending the tempo, slowing with ritardandos, stopping for fermatas and railroad tracks, slightly altering the tempo based on the lyricism of the piece, and sometimes completely throwing the beat out the window to play a cadenza.
When I went to music school in college, I was introduced to jazz, and I realized I was on a completely different playing field, playing a completely different ballgame. As a player used to hashing up melodic solos, playing jazz forced me back to the bassist's primary role: keeping the beat. I remember my teacher telling me that a bassist who can't keep time is useless. A musician might have perfect pitch and stellar chops, but without a sense of rhythm . . . well. Good luck.
Another time I was preparing for a blind audition and was given a tip to keep in mind. When you can't see the adjudicators listening from behind a screen, you won't see their faces, but you also won't see their pencil lightly tapping on their knee checking the consistency of your tempo. Hopefully all panel judges aren't that cruel, but my paranoia of that "one" judge made me reconsider my relationship with my metronome.
We needed to become best friends.
____________________________________USING YOUR METRONOME
If you don't have a metronome, now is the time to keep time. My personal favorites are metronomes with a dial (rather than digital metronomes) such as the Wittner MT60 Quartz. But anything that keeps steady time will do.
Here are a few things your metronome can help you do to become a better musician:
- Understand tempo markings. I like metronomes with a dial that show you the numerical ranges for common tempo markings like largo, andante, moderato, presto, etc. The metronome can help you get the feel for the overall tempo of a passage or piece.
- Set the tempo. Sometimes composers and conductors mark the music with a specific numerical tempo marking in addition to a general tempo marking (like "largo"). Identify the appropriate tempo for your piece of music. This doesn't mean you'll start practicing at that tempo. It's just what you're aiming for. (See number 5.)
- Warm up. When you pull out your instrument, start with long, slow tones to warm up the rosin on your bow and smooth out your tone. Typically you'll start with scales. Warming up with a metronome is like getting your musical heartbeat pumping again. Wake up the rhythm in your body! Ole!
- Practice scales and arpeggios with different rhythmic patterns. After playing scales with whole notes, half notes, and quarter notes, change it up a bit, moving up the scale in triplets (one triplet per bow) or groups of sixteenths. Then practice arpeggios at a slow tempo, gradually turning up the speed.
- Perfect difficult passages. For all music, whether you're playing scales, arpeggios, orchestral excerpts, or solos, START SLOW. Only increase the speed on your metronome once a passage or lick is free of error. You can apply this principle to even a single measure, a group of notes, or even a single shift between two notes. Zone in on exactly what you're tripping over and then conquer it with your metronome.
- Subdivide. Your metronome beat doesn't have to just be for a quarter note. Set it four times faster to click on the sixteenths, or three times faster for triplets. This will help you decipher tricky rhythmic passages, steady your dotted rhythms, and keep a steady beat overall.
- Learn vibrato. A great way to get your hand and fingers comfortable with the physical motion of vibrato is the slowly roll your wrist, forearm, and/or fingers in time with a slow beat. This will develop a vibrato that vibrates consistently rather that shaking uncontrollably.
- Sight read. After regularly using your metronome, you should get a good feel for basic tempo markings. Remembering that "60" means 1 beat per second, if you can get the feel for the timing of seconds, this can be your baseline reference. When you get a piece of music to sightread, always identify the expected tempo before taking off.
- Prepare your accompanist. Whether you're playing with a pianist, a duet partner, a small ensemble, or an orchestra, you can set the tempo specifically to what you're comfortable with. It's the worst when your accompanist rushes ahead of you at a pace that makes you stumble over your tricky passages. Even five extra beats per minute could throw you off if it's faster than you've prepared. It's also torture when you accompanist drags behind you. Give them an exact number so you can play in rhythmic harmony.
- Conduct. If you conduct music, all of these principles apply to your ability to lead musicians in time. Just like I was saying how a bass player who can't keep time is useless, a conductor who can't keep time is even MORE useless! Conductors have to be the rock when it comes to keeping the beat. If you tend to rush or slow down, spend more time with your metronome.
Now, off you go to the practice room. Have a great TIME!
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