“Routine drill is a poor substitute for the fun of utilizing ears and rhythm for making music.”
–Abby Whiteside, pianist (Abby Whiteside on Piano Playing, p. 5)
“Tick, tick, tick,” drones the metronome. “Plunk, plunk, plunk,” goes the music student.
What’s wrong with that picture? Pretty much everything.
Although a metronome can be a musician’s best friend, countless students use metronomes in ways that instill mechanical, inexpressive habits.
As I see it, rhythmic precision is a facet of expressive precision. And metronomes can support or squash our expressive impulses, depending on how we use them.
What I mean is that rhythmic exactness involves, among other things, how we place, articulate, color, and emphasize pitches and phrases.
Metronomes, even programmable ones such as the Dr. Beat, can’t deliver human, musical pulses. Still, without the aid of metronomes, I suppose that few of us could as readily achieve rhythmic mastery.
The key is to use metronomes imaginatively, in ways that enhance our musicality. Here are four ways to do so.
1. Vocalize & Move
Extract a portion from a piece or exercise, especially one that trips you up rhythmically. Then, switch on your metronome, and, at a moderate tempo, repeatedly vocalize the rhythm of the excerpt, nailing every note.
- Set your metronome on the larger pulse if practical (in 4/4 meter, have it click on the half note as opposed to the quarter).
- Vocalize counting syllables – “1 and-uh 2 and” – or rhythmic sounds of your own invention – “Bum bah-dah bee-duh”.
- As you vocalize, you might move rhythmically around your practice room and playfully embody the character of the music. At minimum, direct the pulse with your arm.
- When you’re secure vocalizing the rhythms, play or sing the intact excerpt, adjusting the tempo as appropriate.
2. Toy With Your Timing
Whether you’re vocalizing rhythms or playing or singing a phrase, respond to the gravitational pull of the music.
- With your metronome marking the larger pulses, drive shorter notes into longer ones and move from weaker beats to stronger ones. Stir up irresistible forward motion.
- See pages 31-33 of The Musician’s Way for a discussion of forward motion and the suggestive nature of rhythmic notation.
3. Vary Your Emphasis
Few things are more expressionless than music performed with uniformly emphasized beats. ‘Typing,’ I call it.
Mono-accented music has no place in musical communication (except when deliberately used for effect) just as monotone speech doesn’t belong in expressive conversation.
- Whenever you play or vocalize, accompanied by a metronome or not, create a lush topography of varied accents. Make strong things strong and weak things weak.
- Adjust your volume, color, and articulation to sculpt every gesture, even when you’re working on humble exercises. Override the blandness of a metronome rather than mimicking its uniformity.
4. Bull’s-Eye the Downbeat
Your rhythmic experiments might range widely, but stay in touch with the downbeat, and land on it precisely and enjoyably.
- One tactic: set your metronome to sound only on downbeats, keeping in mind that some downbeats will be stronger than others.
- With your metronome ticking in the background, periodically record yourself playing or singing and promptly listen back, objectively weighing your rhythmic accuracy and flair.
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In these four ways, we use metronomes to provide feedback on the veracity of our internal pulse. The metronome serves us, rather than the other way around.
© 2011 Gerald Klickstein