Metronome: Playing With It Or Against It?

Throughout my years of teaching the clarinet I have come across students who have a very good sense of rhythm and others that find really difficult to feel the pulse. The metronome is the main tool for a musician to learn to differentiate among the variety of note values that make music possible to interpret.

In music we use a whole spectrum of note values that allow us to measure music and create many rhythmic combinations. These rhythms define the length of each note and this is a common knowledge in the music language. Unfortunately students sometimes seem to think that playing pitches is more important than playing the written rhythm within the tempo. Imagine for a minute that this was the main goal of any musician. Imagine how music would sound if all notes were the same length!

Using a metronome, whether correctly, can help students to become more aware of the feeling of a continuous pulse. Many students would claim that the metronome only makes them feel more stressed, or that it is like “an annoying beat that keeps disturbing their playing”. The truth is that it is not easy to get used to it at first. It all depends on how you approach this new tool that will undoubtedly improve your playing.

Exercises to increase your ability to play with the metronome

The most basic exercises to get used to your new tool involve leaving your instrument aside and starting out clapping rhythms. Trying to play pitch and rhythm at the same time can be overwhelming for the mind at first, so we want to simplify things to make you feel comfortable with your new tool.

  1. Set your metronome at 60bpm. Start clapping crotchets with the metronome on. Your clap should sync perfectly with the click of the metronome. Still at the same tempo, continue by clapping minims (1 clap per 2 metronome clicks). Come back to clapping crotchets briefly before moving on into quavers (2 claps per metronome click), then triplets (3 claps per click) and finally semiquavers (4 claps per click).
  2. When comfortable with these rhythms, start clapping off-beat crotchets to the metronome click, that is, clapping in between the click.
  3. With the clarinet, choose a note and play same note values as you did in the first two exercises. If unable to hear whether you are playing with the metronome, I would strongly recommend to record yourself. It will help you to observe what you are doing.
  4. At this point you should feel confident enough to start playing scales in crotchets (one note per metronome click). Subsequently, try to play scales in quavers.

These exercises can be practised at any metronome speed that you wish. Other rhythm combinations may be the subject of another post.

Benefits when using the metronome successfully

Being able to practise with a metronome has countless advantages. When practising scales, it would assist you to play evenly throughout all registers and develop a steady finger movement. When practising a new piece, it would gradually guide you through the tempi that you are capable of performing it at. The rule of thumb would be to set the metronome at a much slower speed to start learning the notes and rhythm of your piece. Subsequently, you would increase tempo gradually (and by that I mean increasing no more than 5bpm at a time) making sure you can still play the passage perfectly before increasing the tempo again.

Another reason it is important to practise with metronome is that it will help you to move forward with the music. When we practise on our own it is common to slow down slightly in the passages we find more difficult, in most cases without even noticing! This habit would be detrimental when trying to play in an orchestra or any other ensemble. Can you imagine 50 or 80 musicians playing at their own will? If it’s helpful, think of the metronome as having the same goal as a conductor marking the beat so that everyone sticks to the same tempo.

Using the metronome but not following it

This is another common thing to see in students. They would put the metronome on, start to play with it and then stop following it after a few beats. Sometimes I wonder whether they are aware they are not playing with it any more. But then I would say they are, in fact this could be the reason why they feel they cannot cope with “this disturbing machine”.

Preparing to play

A common misconception for students at first is that ‘the metronome is rushing you to start the piece immediately’. The click can carry on but you need time to get ready before playing! When using only one click to prepare, breathe and attack the sound, this will only cause you stress and inaccuracy of the attack. Start by allowing yourself a few beats (could be a whole bar), making sure you prepare the air flow with enough compression before it reaches the clarinet.

Remembering there is a process to prepare before playing is essential to breathe calmly and feel under control when attacking the first sound. It will definitely help you to enter more on time with or without the metronome. Even if a more-brass-focused book, Richard Colquhoun has a book called Set, Breathe, Play! where he gives clear instructions about this concept. The book also includes very useful exercises that any wind instrument can benefit from in order to develop the consistent habit of preparing before playing. You can find a copy of the book here.

Disadvantages when not using the metronome

Some students would feel neglectful to use the metronome, possibly for any of the reasons explained above. Unfortunately any teacher would notice whether this is the case, because this may manifest at some point in any of the following ways:

The student would play everything at their own pace. Generally speaking, every person have their own inner tempo, a familiar pulse that makes them feel comfortable and under control. This inner pulse clearly reflects when they try to play any music at the same speed.

Another habit a student could fall into when practising more difficult pieces is fluctuating the tempo. In this case the student would accommodate their playing to the difficulty of each passage.

Metronome role in my online teaching

I have always used the metronome a lot with my students in our face-to-face lessons. However, since online teaching the metronome has become a much more essential tool, for the following reasons:

Students using their own metronome at home feels ‘more familiar to them’. In a month I have seen students making a huge progress at following the metronome.

As a teacher, it allows me to know that they can keep up the tempo when playing, as sometimes our connection freezes for a millisecond. I can clearly realise about it if I get uneven metronome clicks at my end.

Students are experiencing the new challenge of playing duets over a recorded part. The recording follows a metronome speed that the student has to reach in order to be able to play with the recording. The tempo doesn’t fluctuate so it gives them the motion of keep moving forward.

My students in the clarinet ensemble are working really hard to put together new repertoire. A completely different approach to our usual rehearsals, where they were used to listening to each other and blend as an ensemble. Their current challenge is a far cry from rehearsing as a group, as playing their part as accurately as possible with their metronome is nothing like following a conductor. Nevertheless, I am confident that this intense practise with the metronome will bring their playing to another level.

In a nutshell, whether you find yourself switching off the metronome because you can’t stand it, my advice to you would be to consider it as your ‘new heart beat’, something that happens within your body as opposed to ‘an annoying click’ next to you. A midwife once taught me that babies are born with a heart beat of 160bpm, then it reduces to 120bpm as the body and organs grow and so on. Clearly there is some relation between our body pulse and this ‘annoying click’.

Good luck with your practice!

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