You set your metronome to the perfect speed, adjust your chair and start playing. As you’re passing bars, the tempo suddenly increases. You struggle to stay in time and hope to get through the difficult section as smoothly as possible, but when you approach the snag, the metronome starts clicking even faster. You are crushed, crying and wanting to throw the metronome out of the window.
Does this nightmare sound familiar?
I know, the metronome is no one’s favourite partner in crime, but using it for practice can seriously improve your technique and timing. If you follow a couple of rules, the metronome can help with learning complex rhythms, playing in time, and playing up to the original tempo.
How does the metronome actually work?
A metronome produces a click at a regular interval. This interval is based on a metric called beats per minute, or BPM. Whatever number you set the metronome at, this is how many times it will click in one minute. Musicians can synchronise their playing to this regular beat.
What initiates the clicking sound is a pendulum rod with a weight on the end. If you wish to increase the tempo, move the weight further down the rod, and the pendulum will swing faster. A clockwork winding mechanism powers most metronomes and produces the regular click. Therefore, they don’t require external power.
Given the popularity of smartphones nowadays, metronome apps are commonly used. They work in the same way: providing a steady pulse you can follow along while playing. If you are on a budget, metronome apps are a good substitute for a classic metronome. There are plenty of free ad-supported apps available for Android and iPhone.
Did you know that you can play your favourite song with a metronome on Jellynote? Choose your sheet music, adjust the Tempo, and click on the metronome icon in the Play bar. You can set the volume of the clicks as well!
Why practice with a metronome?
Play in time
The point of using a metronome is to play along with a steady pulse. Some metronomes make a different sound on the first beat of the bar, allowing you to easily differentiate between playing in 3 or 4 when you are a beginner.
Start with a slow tempo, lower BPM. It is not about how fast you can play along with the metronome. The goal should be to get to the performance tempo but it does not matter if you need to start slowly. Start practising as slow as you need to, and gradually increase the speed when you feel comfortable.
The best perk of a regular metronome practice is that it develops students’ internal sense of pulse. Often students come to me without any real idea of the concept of playing in time. Regular metronome practice ensures that most students start feeling the pulse very quickly.
Learn complex rhythms
Metronome practice is one of the best ways to get to grips with complex rhythmic patterns that may not be immediately obvious or easy to play. The simplest way to use a metronome to achieve this is through a concept called subdivision.
First you need to figure out the rhythm. Clap the beat slowly and sing the melody to the beat. Your teacher can explain the rhythm to you if you’re unsure or you can use a recording to teach yourself the rhythm.
Once you’ve got it go back to the piano, set the metronome to a slow speed, and try to imitate what you did before, only now the metronome is keeping the beat instead of your clapping, and you try to play the rhythm on the piano instead of singing it. Keep going until you’ve mastered it slowly. Then gradually increase the speed as you become more proficient and confident in playing the rhythm.
This is an exceptionally useful strategy. The advanced pianist that I am, don’t have too much trouble with rhythms anymore. But when I come across complicated groups of 5, 7 or 9, this technique proves very helpful to me too!
There are some useful words you can use when counting the beats. These might sound ridiculous, but they will help! Counting individual rhythmic groups as numbers is extremely hard, but if you replace numbers with unusual words that have the right number of syllables, it becomes a lot easier.
- Groups of 3 = Com-pu-ter
- Groups of 4 = Bi-o-lo-gy
- Groups of 5 = Dal-la-picc-o-la
- Groups of 6 = Vla-di-mir Ho-ro-witz
- Groups of 7 = Mi-cro-bi-o-log-ic-al
If you get used to practising these rhythmic exercises with a metronome, you’ll have no trouble with complex rhythms.
Play up to the original tempo
This is where advanced students benefit the most from using a metronome. If you are struggling to play a certain section or a piece up to the original tempo, use the metronome to gradually increase the speed once you’ve mastered a slow tempo. The increase in speed must be so gradual that you hardly notice it, and before you know it, you’re playing at the tempo you never thought you could.
Most people try to increase the speed too soon. This concept only works if you start at an extremely slow speed and try to master every movement. You must be playing so slowly that you are aware of everything you are doing, every placement of your hand needs to be precise. If you make a mistake, you must be able to correct it on the go. Correct your hand position every time it gets even slightly off, and don’t increase the tempo until you feel your fingers are landing on the right spots at the right time.
When you are able to do this, gradually increase the speed a few beats per minute, and do it all over again. It’s critical that there are absolutely NO mistakes.
If you let any mistakes slip through and don’t correct them before moving on, this technique won’t work.
Should I use the metronome all the time?
A metronome is primarily a practice tool. You shouldn’t play along with it when you’re giving a performance. When you go see your teacher, you shouldn’t need the metronome either.
There are definitely cases when overusing the metronome will negatively impact your playing. When your piece is up to the performance tempo, you shouldn’t use the metronome for anything other than spot-checking certain sections.
If you decide to play along with your metronome all the time, your performance risks becoming mechanical and unmusical. Nobody wants to listen to someone playing exactly in time, you will sound like a robot. When you have mastered the technical aspects of a piece, then it is time to play music rather than just the notes.
Use your metronome wisely and with moderation. Learn to play music and not just the notes. Your metronome is a practice tool and not a performance tool.
Jellynote decided to interview teacher and pianist Jack Bird, to learn about the benefits of playing with the metronome. Jack curates his blog The Honest Pianist and writes about learning and playing the piano.