Always Use a Metronome… Really?

Music teachers often admonish their students to “always practice with a metronome.” I can recall one master class in which the professor tried to drive the point home by stressing “Always! Always! Always!” Me, being the good little boy scout that I am, have tried to live up to that standard.

A stable sense of rhythm and tempo is undoubtedly one mark of an excellent musician. One of my favorite jazz albums is Michael Brecker’s “Time is of the Essence,” which of course has a dual meaning for musicians. However, it has occurred to me that while practicing, it may often be necessary to temporarily eliminate the element of tempo in order to focus on other elements.

Yesterday while teaching a private lesson, I stumbled on the phrase, “Try that again at your own pace.” I turned off the metronome and allowed the student to work out the technical difficulties of the notes without worrying about tempo. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not that I think I invented a revolutionary new system for practicing or anything. But it was one of those moments when you come across a teaching technique or phrase that has application elsewhere.

Playing long tones is another example of a time when turning off the metronome can be beneficial. Sure, you could keep it clicking to keep track of the beat, but wouldn’t turning it off help you focus on your sound? Isn’t the point of long tones to improve tone? Does it really matter if you cut off the long note precisely on the beat?

Many modern method books come with play along CDs. Isn’t practicing along with these CDs comparable to playing with a metronome?

So I challenge the idea that you should “always” practice with a metronome. What do you think? If you teach private music lessons, how much do you have your students play with a metronome? Do you even use one at all? In your own practice time, how much do you use it?

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7 thoughts on “Always Use a Metronome… Really?

  1. How funny. I’ve been pondering this exact same question. My first two piano teachers never had me use a metronome. I didn’t start using one until I was in my pre-teens, and it dramatically improved my skill. I use it every day in practice, but not for every portion of practice.

    Right now, all of my students are beginners. I don’t require that they own a metronome as beginners, although I am considering that I should. I use it at least once during each lesson. And because of it, my students already have a better sense of rhythym than I had after playing for several years.

    I think to use it all the time would detract from the feeling of a piece. There is so much more to consider in music than rhythym and tempo. However, I think it is important to use it at the beginning stages of learning a piece and then wherever there are difficulties. I find that if a student is having a problem with some area of a piece, even if it isn’t rhythym related, they seem to improve when we use the metronome at a much slower pace.

  2. I never use a metronome in class. I use it when I contemplate tempos at the beginning, when I am just learning a new piece. But, I like the it when the tempo “breathes”. That is, except in instances when the tempo MUST be strictly adhered to, like a march. Much of the music I find myself drawn to, and thus picking for my kids is music that sound better when tempo is almost an afterthought.

  3. I should clarify that I was referring to using a metronome in private lessons and in one’s own practice time. Using a metronome in a large ensemble class is probably unreasonable.

  4. Well, about long tones, I find that if I don’t use a metronome, the “long” tones get shorter and shorter. 🙂

    And yeah, for classroom purposes, a metronome isn’t really helpful for the simple fact that it’s not loud enough and clapping works better if I really need a tempo. One catch-phrase I’d often use, though, would be to ask my kids “did you speed up, slow down, or stay the same?” so they’d start listening to these things.

    In my own practice, I use it a lot to limit myself to certain tempi until it’s all worked out; I’ve had the bad habit of speeding up on parts I do know and slowing down on parts I don’t since forever, so it’s good to have something to smooth things out. Plus, I can write my metronome markings in passages to track my progress.

    For things like transcribed vocalises and what not (Bordogni/Rochut, anyone?) things are just too rubato to warrant having a click in your ear all the time.

    When teaching, I’ll only often set a click if tempo is an issue rather than turn it off when it’s an annoyance.

  5. I agree with Greg Albing for the most part, except on large ensemble practice. I’ve seen metronomes do wonders for even a 200-piece marching band. Indoors, I definitely advocate it when starting a piece, and probably all the way up until the last week or so before a performance just because you hope that students can perform without it by then.

    Some things don’t need the metronome to work, but if you are staying with the tempo and following all the markings, then all the musicality should work itself out to the extent that beginning and intermediate students should need.

  6. For those working in classrooms, Dr. Beat does have the capability to be played through a speaker system (which is a tremendous asset to a music classroom).

    However, ultimately, I find that a metronome is a helpful tool from which you want to wean your students. A sense of steady tempo should be “felt” from within the body’s core, not “followed” by trying to coordinate a “tick,” “beep,” or flashing light with the fingers (whichever playing mechanism suits your instrument). Pianists are especially notorious for letting their fingers run out-of-control. Sometimes you have to get them off the bench for them to experience a steady pulse. Conducting, marching, dancing, etc. can all be used to bury the “metronome” deep within.

  7. Hi eatsbugs and Scott,

    Good thoughts. I agree with the idea that a musician needs to internalize the pulse. Most of my students are in elementary or junior high, so they’re just getting used to the idea of following the metronome. Hopefully as they progress in high school and beyond they will learn the art of internalizing the pulse and even varying it when appropriate.

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