Years of studying music has taught me that there are at least two ways of learning anything. For example, one way of learning vibrato is to observe a good one and imitate it. Another way is to learn it in parts, the first one being to wave your wrist like you’re knocking on a door. Both methods result in the same technique, but a student may only resonate with one of the methods. Teaching music is a fishing expedition. If one method hits a brick wall, try the other twenty. No one learns everything there is to know about vibrato in one revelatory moment. Insight comes with experience and frustration.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to developing rhythm. The fixed beat, as exemplified by the metronome, has a strictness and orthodoxy which makes rhythm cut-and-dried. It lacks the context of playing with phrasing, but it still is an effective tool that we’re lucky to have. The other school is a bit more complicated, but highly more effective. It relies on the ear deciding how a beat is going to play out. For example, playing two eighth notes will be dependent on the pacing of the music. It can vary a great deal from the “absolute” nature of the metronome. To appreciate rhythm that evolves is the path to good ensemble playing.
How Can a Metronome Teach Musical Flexibility?
If a machine could teach the rhythmic gentleness of a melodic phrase, it would be something like this: the clicking sound of the beat would follow the sound of the performer. Imagine Heifetz’s perfect rhythm, finessed by a ritard here or an accelerando there, recreated in a flexible metronomic sequence. Just think of the variety of speeds you would encounter with the master of rubato, Fritz Kreisler.
A gadget that is flexible enough to follow the natural flow of the musician sounds like science fiction. However, there’s a button on many electronic metronomes that allows you to tap in the beat that you’re hearing. This in turn tells you what the marking is. The point of this description is to create a thought experiment that reminds you to listen to your inner singing voice. Let the actual music determine the metronome marking, not the other way around.
Rhythm’s Raw Ingredients
The most valuable thing about the metronome is that it quickly sets up the subdivisions for an ordinary phrase. Being able to spontaneously shift from duples to triplets to sixteenth notes, for example, can be developed with the help of the machine-like beat of a metronome.
Follow these rules of common sense that will produce fluid and even subdivisions:
If you have trouble picking a triplet out of a metronomic beat, you’re not alone. A triplet shouldn’t feel squeezed between two beats. Sing the triplet so it feels comfortable, then let it fit between the magnetic pull of the beats. In the tightly-wound world of metronomic rhythm, eighth-notes should fit as proportionally as a rainbow. Rainbows have always inspired us with their colorful beauty and proportional palette.
Tick-Tock: How Even Beats Become Human Pulse
There is a “valve” in our brains that makes mechanical beats connect to the strongest and most convincing musical current available. If notes and rhythms are learned slowly and patiently, with an ear open for absorption, this miracle occurs. The musical mind in such a scenario is ready for anything, whether it be new dynamics or ebb-and -flow pacing.
Yes, impediments get in the way. Leaving out just one subdivision may cause you to stumble, but the joy of discovering the errant element is worth the time you spend practicing. Patience and curiosity keep us at it. They pull us back to the practice room every day, with the belief that something that can be made so complicated, is actually quite predictable and straightforward.
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