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The Metronome: to be or not to be?

The Sensible Flutist: The Metronome: to be or not to be?

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Metronome: to be or not to be?

A simple tweet by Erica Sipes last week, “Something I find myself saying a lot these days: Metronomes are not a substitute for counting out loud. It's that simple.” morphed into a full discussion of how to use the metronome (and how not to use it) that left everyone involved a little smarter and inspired to expand our tweets into a larger commentary.

I thought Erica’s tweet was interesting and responded by asking her about wind and brass players who can’t do this when they’re playing. In my studio, I emphasize the importance of the metronome to my students (especially my younger ones) in order to highlight its purpose as a practice tool in order to help you develop an internal and accurate sense of rhythmic pulse.

I have students that take right to the metronome and those who don’t (and even those who don't take to it still manage to have a decent sense of rhythmic pulse). I had consistent problems with rhythm as a student myself until my 10th grade year of high school. My private teacher made rhythm a math problem, and it all made sense. Students who are strong in math will understand this and will grasp the concept easily, but there are students who will not understand. Describing rhythms and time signatures like a math problem or equation that must be figured out will be as abstract as the abstract music notation system in front of them. So how do we help those students?

When rhythm is a specific issue the student is dealing with, I take away the instrument. Regardless of the issue a student is having with a particular skill or element of a piece, isolating the element and prioritizing and focusing on the issue at hand is essential to mindful practicing in order to fix the problem. For my young students, one of the first ways I teach them to practice is a series of steps for their one line exercises. They first count and clap the passage, then clap alone and then they try the line on their instrument. Another element that I add is to begin having the students extract measures they still have issues with. The more isolated we can make the problem, the easier it will be inserting back into the whole and the student will begin actively listening to themselves and will be able to identify areas that need improvement.

Given that practicing isn’t something that is really taught, it’s my goal as a teacher to change this. I make sure that when I offer suggestions to a student in their lesson that I make clear that I am making helpful practice method suggestions to them. No one is going to learn a piece well by playing it over and over until they have just the notes and rhythms down. What about tempo? What about phrasing? What about the structure? These are all skills students will learn over time if they stay with their instrument, but the metronome gets us back to the foundational building block of rhythm on which these other elements can then be added.

As a teacher, don’t be afraid to not use the metronome. Let the student develop their sense of rhythm naturally and when they’re ready (this was my favorite suggestion from @DLP_DSM (Discover Learn and Play), introduce the metronome back into lessons. If you feel like you can’t do this, read and research (neuroscience research about learning is my favorite reading related to figuring out how to help a student) until you feel you have enough strategies available to be able to help a student develop an internal pulse prior to aligning that natural pulse with a metronome.

Music on the page is a way of organizing various complex elements together in a way that makes sense. The metronome is simply a tool and should not be used as an absolute. Be mindful in your teaching and help your students discover for themselves the power of this tool and how it can help them. Most of all, be patient and give your students the freedom they need to explore and develop into fine musicians.

For those others who were involved in this discussion, please read their pieces below:

Erica Sipes/@ericasipes Bowing to the Mighty Metronome?

Janet Bordeaux/@janetbxyz Metronome: Monster or Friend?

Eugene Cantera/@DLP_DSM #musiced, twitter, and the metronome

Kim Hickey/@hickey_kim Metronome - Friend or Foe?

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