Dear Marina: What’s the Best Way to Use the Metronome?


Dear Marina,

I’ve been teaching myself to play the piano for years, and just recently started taking lessons with a local teacher. She has shown me things I wish I had known years ago that would have helped me greatly, but I just didn’t know what it was that I didn’t know. For example, the importance of using a metronome and how to practice with one.

After all this time, I’ve finally started using one and it has made a huge difference in my playing. Could you please talk about the importance of practicing with a metronome, what benefits it brings, and the proper way to work with one? I’m sure there are many other people who are still in the dark about that mysterious little tool, just like I was.

Thanks for your help!

Greg

Dear Greg,

First, I congratulate you on finding someone to help you take your playing to the next level. As I always say, while it’s possible to “teach yourself” (which, really, is an inaccurate way of phrasing it – will write a blog post about this topic soon), it’s much better to find a teacher to guide you.

The metronome seems to be one of those things that scares people until they actually know what to do with it. With almost all of my students, the first time I suggest using one, I encounter a bit of resistance. What’s this thing that makes the annoying sound? What are the numbers for? How do I know which notes go with the beats? How is it possible to listen to it while still paying attention to the music? Why should I even bother doing this?

Ok, let’s break this down, point by point.

First, a lot of metronomes have a visual component, like a blinking light or those things that go side to side. I would strongly suggest that you disregard these visual aids. Keep your eyes on your music, or on your hands, and tune your ears into the ticking sound of the metronome. You want to really connect with that beat.

Now, the numbers. Those tell you how many beats per minute there are. So, if your metronome is set to 60, you will have a beat, or a click, each second. If it’s set to 120, you’ll have 2 clicks per second, and so on. And that’s all that the number tells you. Many people think that the higher the number, the faster the music goes. But, that’s not necessarily so. It all depends on how you apportion out those beats.

Here’s what I mean. Let’s say that you set your metronome to 60 beats per minute (bpm). Without changing that number, the music you play to it can sound very slow or very fast. It’s up to you. If you decide that the beat represents a half note, then the piece you play will sound twice as fast as it would if that same beat represented a quarter note. It all depends on how you’re splitting up the beats.

You can demonstrate this for yourself. Turn on a metronome. If you don’t have one (or an app of one), then just google the word “metronome” and the top result should be an actual metronome with an adjustable slider. Set it on 60. Listen to a few clicks, and when you’re ready, clap along. One clap for each click. When that feels easy, try doing two claps per click. So, you will clap with the click and clap again in between clicks. When you’ve got that handled, clap 4 times for each click. That means you’ll clap once with the click and then 3 more times before the next click.

You see how, while the click itself stays the same, your claps get faster and faster?

Next try this with a piece that you can play well. You don’t have to use the number 60, set the metronome to whatever number suits you.

Ok, so how do you listen to the beat AND play a piece at the same time? Like anything else, it takes practice. The first time you got on a bicycle (or tried to swim, or tie your shoelaces), you probably struggled a little, or a lot. But, at some point, your body “got” the feeling of balance and off you went. What if I were to ask you, “How do you balance on a bicycle?” Could you tell me all the physical process that take place? Probably not. You’d probably say something like, “I just feel it.”

It’s the same thing with using a metronome. You might wobble a bit, but eventually, you will find your balance.

And now for the most important part. Why use a metronome at all?

  • It keeps you “on track” so that you can learn to play at a steady tempo.
  • It’s a tool to help you play faster. Start at a slow tempo to learn the music, then steadily go at higher bpm to increase your proficiency with playing that particular selection.
  • Use it to challenge yourself. If you think that playing fast is the most difficult thing you can do, then you probably haven’t tried playing at super slow tempos. One of the best ways to check your proficiency with a piece of music is to play it at a fraction of its performance tempo. So, for example, if you would normally play a piece at 120 bpm for a quarter note, try playing it at 40 bpm for a quarter note.

I made a Technique Exercise tutorial recently, in which I use the metronome to increase the tempo of the exercise. You can find the sheet music for it here. Try it out!

That’s it for now. Go practice with a metronome and have a great time!

Marina

 


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