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Saved By The Tick

by Bruce Siegel on July 27th, 2017

Do you ever use a metronome when you practice? I don’t mean all the time, but sometimes?

If not, it’s probably because you haven’t yet learned how helpful this little device can be.

Starting with the most basic of the metronome’s functions, here’s what I mean:

1. It can help you learn to play in time.

Pianists have a reputation for terrible timing. Do you know why? It’s because we so often play by ourselves.

If your instrument is guitar, flute, violin—just about anything besides keyboard—chances are you often jam with other musicians. Maybe you even play in a band or orchestra.

But we pianists like to think of ourselves as the orchestra. (And given our instrument’s capacity for handling both melody and harmony, that’s understandable.) The problem is, while putting on a one-man show, we have no external frame of reference.

Rhythmically, there’s no one around to keep us honest, to keep us steady.

That’s where the metronome shines.

2. It can remind you where you’re slowing down.

Consider this common scenario: at her lesson, a student will play for me a piece she’s been practicing for weeks. And I’ll say: are you slowing down in this measure on purpose? And she’ll look at me with a puzzled expression.

Get it? Since the passage is hard, every time she reaches that spot, she slows down. And by now, she’s so used to hearing a change in tempo, it actually sounds right to her.

So I turn the metronome on, she plays again, and the truth dawns: Ahh. I see. I do slow down.

So give your playing the metronome test. On a given song, if it’s easy to play with the ticker ticking, you may not need it.

3. It can help you practice at a slow tempo.

You’ve probably discovered the value of slow practice. If not, you need to. After all, to practice means to play a given passage repeatedly, and to play it well. Otherwise you’re just reinforcing mistakes. And to play a difficult part correctly from the start, usually requires you to play it slowly—or even very, very, slowly.

But here’s the thing. It’s tricky to play a song in slow motion, because you’re accustomed to hearing it up to tempo. And what you hear inwardly as you practice, will keep pulling you like gravity, trying to get you to match that familiar feel.

So this is where the metronome comes in. It doesn’t let you speed up. It keeps you at the slow tempo you’ve set. And by so doing, it helps you to practice just the right notes (and rhythms, dynamics, phrasing, and so forth.)

4. It can help you gradually increase the tempo.

Once you can play a piece slowly, it’s time to begin working it up to tempo. And that’s best handled in stages, increasing the level of difficulty little by little. With its precise markings, the metronome makes it easy to keep track of  where you are tempo-wise, so you can move up the ladder incrementally.

This function is especially handy when practicing exercises. Like an athlete motivated by the thrill of achieving his fastest time or highest jump, the student who practices exercises with the help of a metronome, may find his practice a lot more fun.

5. It can help you find—or remember—exactly the right tempo.

I don’t know about you, but I find there’s a huge difference between playing a song at a reasonably suitable pace, and playing it at the precise speed that brings out what I most love about it. If you look at my sheet music, you might see, for example: “7.27.17: 138 for the quarter note.”

That means that on that day, playing the piece at 138, it felt wonderful. At the time, the effect produced by that tempo may even have come as a major revelation to me.

Now admittedly, over the years, my interpretations may change.  But it’s amazing how often I’ll find myself playing a piece at such and such a tempo, and then discover that 20 years earlier, I settled on exactly the same feel. So sometimes, when playing an old favorite, it’s a time-saver to see an ideal tempo written down, instead of having to figure it out all over again.

So there you have some of my favorite ways of using this ancient and rightfully ubiquitous device.

By the way, my own metronome is a Wittner MT-50. It’s loud, inexpensive, and has survived at least a thousand drops onto a very hard floor.

Let the ticking begin!

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