My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Bowing to the mighty metronome?

The other night on twitter I tweeted a thought that has been popping up in my life on a pretty regular basis lately:

Metronomes are not a substitute for counting out loud.

As is common on twitter, many of my fabulous musical colleagues there jumped in to add their thoughts about the mighty metronome and to expand upon the theme, branching out to tweeting about dealing with rhythm issues both personally and with students.  It was a really fascinating, fast discussion and one that led to the group of us wanting to record our thoughts for inclusion in a group blog-post.  With that said, here is my little spiel about metronomes.  

To start off, I want to protect myself from a barrage of comments, tweets, and e-mails by saying that I do like metronomes.  My metronome is, in fact, my friend...most of the time.  


I do feel as though the metronome is often used with the hope that it alone will cure all rhythmic and technical difficulties.  So often kids I play for come in with bad rhythm.  When I call them on it the inevitable response is, "But I practiced with my metronome!"  

I see metronomes as really good crutches but not as a permanent fix.  Here's why...

Image from Wikimedia Commons
Crutches don't fix anything.  They are a tool - they support one while healing from a broken bone or a sprained ankle.  But what usually happens before we even get to the crutches?   A doctor is seen, x-rays taken and carefully examined. Sometimes the bones are carefully reset or pinned together and a cast or bandages are strategically wound around the injured appendage.  Now the crutches can effectively come into play for what they are - tools to help us get around while our body is healing.

So what does it take to successfully heal in the area of pulse and rhythm?  What work do I have to do before I can grab my metronome and have it actually help rather than hinder or distract from the real problem?  
  • I take a look to see if I really understand mathematically what's supposed to be happening.  It can be so tempting to guess, to try and magically fit all those black notes into a given beat.  All it takes is about 2 minutes to do the math and considering the fact that such comprehension is permanent and secure, I'm willing to spend the time.  I should also add that I am not shy about marking beats in the score or writing out subdivisions about the problem rhythm in order to see how everything lines up.  
  • Once I know how everything is supposed to be lined up I then take a step back and make sure that I know which notes fall on which beats because no two beats in a measure are alike.  Downbeats feel very differently then second beats, upbeats feel differently then downbeats...they each have their unique purpose and most composers pay attention to this and set their music in a very purposeful way.  If they don't, chances are they're either not a great composer or more often than not, they are trying to make a statement by breaking the norm.  Most metronomes do not help with this issue, although there are some these days that can be set to have different toned beeps, with a higher pitch indicating where the downbeats of each measure are.  Problem with this is that when I'm dealing with music that has constant meter changes it is impossible to set the metronome to account for these changes without having to stop and reset every measure or two.
  • The next step is to conduct while singing the music.  And no, my singing isn't very good.  Often I don't even sing on pitch.  My main focus is just getting the rhythm lined up with my conducting.
  • Once I can conduct and sing I then move onto playing the music while counting out loud.  For these last two steps it is crucial that I choose a tempo that allows me to do the exercises without altering the tempo and without stopping.  Singers and anyone needing to blow into an instrument will not be able to do this last step very easily although singers can adapt it by singing the counts rather than singing the words.  
After doing this type of rhythmic examination and re-setting only then do I feel ready to add the metronome.  In all honesty, since using the above steps religiously for the past few years, I have not felt the need to use one as much.  The way I see it is that I have essentially turned myself into my own metronome.  If I can conduct, if I can count out loud while playing, the rhythm and the pulse are clearly a part of me.  Even issues of rushing and slowing down have significantly decreased.  

Are these exercises easy to do?  No, they aren't.  And it has taken persistence and a bit of swallowing my pride at first.  But now that I feel like a completely new musician, I gladly take on the challenge when I need to.  I also believe that solving my rhythm and pulse issues has made me a much better collaborator and accompanist.  When I play with another musician, they know that they have in me a conductor that will provide a steady, predictable, secure force that they can ride on.  Not worrying about rhythm has also freed me from a lot of insecurity and doubt, enabling me to focus on expressing the music.  It has made music-making even more gratifying and glorifying. 

To return to my tweet that started all this musing, here's another way of looking at it:

Metronomes can be helpful tools, but only after going to the doctor first and getting everything set just right.  Then, and only then, can the musical breaks really be fixed.   

So as long as you're willing to do the work, go ahead, set aside those metronomes, and build the metronome within you.  You won't regret it!

Click here to see a post that compiles the multiple posts that my twitter friends and I wrote about metronomes into one. There are a lot of great and varied ideas there!  And if you have anything to add, please don't hesitate to do that in the comments section!  


  1. This is good stuff. I'm an amateur adult cellist in my 40's, and I've been playing for just a couple of years. I have no musical background.

    I've started playing duets recently, so my rhythmic limitations have been more obvious. Without a metronome, the first few lines are okay. However, after that I lose whatever pulse I started out with. What do you mean when you say that you "conduct" while you're singing it?

    I enjoy your blog, BTW, especailly anything to do with practicing. Good luck with your Beethoven.

    1. Dear Cellophyte,
      First I have to say that I love that - "cellophyte." I wish I had thought of that :-)

      Second, congratulations on picking up an instrument as an adult! Adults have so much potential because they rarely have the same types of battles in regards to practicing that kids do.

      In answer to your question (hopefully), when I talk about conducting I'm referring to the patterns that conductors make when they are in front of an orchestra that keeps the whole group together. Not everyone has studied conducting so it might be a bit tricky. But I love conducting patterns because each beat has a different direction which easily distinguishes one from another. It gives the beats very distinctive feelings with the downbeats being a comfortable, strong down motion and upbeats feeling lighter, with a natural tendency to fall back downward on the next beat. Here is a website that shows what the patterns are:

      (Sorry. I don't know if that will turn into a hyperlink on it's own!)

      And to clarify, with the first three steps listed above I do these all away from the instrument.

      I hope this helps but if it doesn't, do let me know!

      Happy practicing!


  2. That's very helpful. Thanks. I wasn't sure if you were being literal. I usually tap my feet for the pulse and then clap or tap my hands for the notes while counting (or sing, which is scary). I think I'll try and learn a couple of these, as I need all the help I can get.

    1. Cellophyte,
      What you've been doing is also really good too! I like having lots of different tools to keep practicing interesting and fight the tendency to just go on automatic. Hopefully you'll be able to add conducting into your tool belt too.

      Best wishes!


  3. I have to confess that I LOVE practicing with a metronome. It frees me to concentrate on other things. It also helps me internalize the pulse. I know I should practice counting out loud -- in fact, my current piano teacher is big on counting, either aloud or mentally -- but I think of that as a separate issue of knowing what beat you're on. It still doesn't solve the problem of unknowingly rushing or dragging.

    When I'm practicing something on the cello with lots of long notes, I also find it very helpful to set the metronome to the smallest subdivision so I understand how many beats are in those long notes. This helps especially when I'm practicing a part I'm going to play with a group.

    I generally don't fire up the metronome until after I've made sure I understand what's going on in a piece, though.

  4. Hello, Harriet!
    I completely get what your saying and in my experience, that's what I used the metronome for during most of my musical life until recently. I don't know why my lack of an internal pulse didn't bug me until now but it was painfully obvious to me that the minute the metronome was off I didn't feel anything inside and that's what caused me to rush and slow down. I think that perhaps my lightbulb moment was when I performed on stage sitting right next to a percussionist playing a drumset on some jazz tunes. Sitting right there made it impossible for me to not internally feel the beat and it felt so incredibly good! It also made me wonder how it is that percussionists are virtually living metronomes that truly feel the pulse. I was determined to figure out how he did it and to apply it to my own playing.

    That's when I came up with the conducting thing. I realized that conductors amaze me for the same reason that I have so much admiration for drummers. I wanted that unquestionable, unwavering sense of pulse that they have. So I started conducting and counting out loud more and more. Since starting, I have had to use the metronome less and less because finally I'm getting this incredible feeling in my gut of the pulse that is unstoppable. It's very fun :-)

    Anyway, I do think it's great that you use the metronome - like I said, I don't think of it an enemy. Well not usually. Ha ha!

    Thank you for your input, Harriet. I always enjoy chatting with you about ideas!

    All the best,