Listen to some of the great R&B recordings, where the rhythm section is locked together into a solid groove and push the tune along irresistibly. Compare these to a metronome and you’ll find they are rock steady, with every beat dependably in place for the audience on the dance floor.
It’s easy to tell where the beat is and the rhythm comes through unmistakably. These players learned about time and tempo, and they use metronomes as part of their practice.
Metronomes aren’t exciting or fun; they could be the Stairmaster® of musical practice. They tick away constantly, a relentless reminder of structure, shortcoming and errors.
But they are an extremely helpful tool, and can help you dramatically and quickly improve and become a solid and steady player. This will help make learning new tunes, playing with others, or making recordings, much easier and more satisfying for everyone – especially the audience.
If you’re practicing by yourself, it’s very easy for your attention to wander. When you come to a part of a tune you are still learning or find more difficult, you’ll slow down, and then speed up for the familiar, easy parts. This is a very natural response, and you have to work to even out the tempo.
Often, you won’t even notice that you’re speeding up or slowing down. And worse, you’ll teach yourself to hear these variations in tempo as normal, so when you play with others – or with recorded tracks -you’ll have a harder time meshing with the other players. And others *will* notice the tempo variations, especially if you are trying to play to a recording.
Fortunately, the solution isn’t technically difficult, and just requires a bit of work on your part – with a metronome.
A few minutes with the metronome each time you practice will quickly help you develop steady timekeeping and counting skills.
It won’t be long before you start to hardly hear the metronome, and this won’t be because you’re playing loud enough to drown it out! You won’t hear it because you’re right in step with it.
Metronomes come in many styles now, and can be quite small and have more pleasing sounds or just lights. Clockwork, pendulum style metronomes are still available, but there are many digital models.
And very importantly, modern metronomes do more than just tick away. They can count in many time signatures, emphasise or drop particular beats, and can even verbally count out specific rhythms.
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- Start at a reduced speed. Make sure you can actually play the section at a reasonable tempo.
- Listen for the metronome. When you get to spots that give you trouble, you’ll slow down, and you will hear the metronome getting away from you. Pay attention and work on those sections.
- Don’t rush through the easy parts. If the tempo is too fast to play the hard parts cleanly, slow the metronome down.
- Speed up slowly. Once you can reliably play through the section, exercise or tune, turn the speed up.
- Slow down. It can be harder to play slowly, without sounding rushed.
- Occasional speed bursts. Sometimes, it’s helpful to ‘confuse’ your muscles by asking them to do something different. Turn the metronome up to your limit and try to keep up. Then, slow it down again and make sure you aren’t rushing. This could be compared to driving your car off a freeway exit and entering a school zone – you were deliberately driving fast, but in the school zone, you have to drive slowly and carefully.
- Don’t just sit still. You’re trying to teach your whole body about time. If you move some parts of your body with the metronome, your practice and playing will have a more ‘natural’ and less ‘clockwork’ feel. Clap in time, if nothing else.
- Count along with the metronome, while reading or listening to the piece.
- Don’t overuse the metronome! While modern music requires that a player be able to lock onto one tempo, we’re still human, and part of dynamic expression is tempo variation. The concept of “Temp rubato”, or “stolen time”, expresses this. The players speed up, slow down, pause and resume depending on the emotional and rhythmic requirements of the tune. This is a developed skill in itself, and should not be set aside in favour of strict adherence to a set tempo.