Make Friends with your Metronome

Most music students seem to have a love-hate relationship with their metronomes. What about you? Do you have a metronome? Do you use your metronome? It’s time for you to make friends with your metronome!

What is a Metronome?

A metronome is a small device that produces a steady beat. Originally metronomes were similar to small pendulums with a way to adjust the speed of the pendulum. Today you can still purchase mechanical metronomes, but more likely, musicians will use digital metronomes or even metronome apps on their phones.

Metronomes have been around for centuries! I guess that means that musicians have had issues with tempo and rhythm for centuries as well! (You aren’t the only one!) Historical records exist for a device similar to a metronome as far back as the 800s. The first successful musical metronome appeared in 1696. By the early 1800s, metronomes similar to what we use today were developed and patented. Beethoven was probably the first famous composer to write metronome markings in his music.

Why Should I Use a Metronome?

Use a metronome to practice keeping a steady tempo throughout a piece.

Too often, it seems, students tend to play the easy parts of a piece of music at one speed but then slow down during the hard parts of the music. Are you one of those students? Do you even know if you tend to do that? A metronome will provide unbiased proof of whether you slow down the hard parts or speed up during the easy parts. It is important to keep a steady tempo throughout both the easy and more difficult passages of your music.

Use a metronome to play at the correct tempo.

What does it mean when your music’s tempo marking is adagio? Or allegretto? Or largo? What if your music says mm = 120? What does that mean? MM=120 written in your music means you are supposed to play 120 beats of music in one minute. Your quarter note (usually designated by a written quarter note with the mm marking) should beat 120 times a minute. That is equal to two beats per second. If your metronome marking is 60, that means one beat per second, so a marking of 120 equals two beats per second. A marking of 90 means to play 1-1/2 beats per second. Confusing? It’s all about the math! Set your metronome to the marking listed in your music, and you will know exactly how fast or slow you should play.

And if the markings use words instead of numbers, your metronome has you covered there as well. Most metronomes provide ranges of beats for each tempo word. Largo means about 45-50 beats per minute (BPM). Moderato is 86-97 BPM, and Presto is considered 168-177 BPM. I remember seeing a piece marked “As fast as you can play.” Metronome markings can go up to 208 BPM.

Use a metronome to practice hard passages with lots of notes.

One effective way to use a metronome is when practicing a passage of music with lots of notes – 16th notes, 32nd notes, etc. The tendency for students is to slow down to play all the notes. Another tendency is to “cheat” your way through the passage – play all the notes but unevenly, or play the notes that come out and skip the rest. However, a good musician will work until he can play every note evenly and up to tempo.

Use your metronome to help you accomplish this. Start slowly, setting your metronome to beat for every 16th note. Then, when you can play the passage well slowly, little by little, increase the tempo. Then set your metronome to beat 8th notes. Again, little by little, increase the tempo. Set your metronome to beat quarter notes, and again, gradually increase your tempo with your metronome settings. You will “soon” (or eventually) master the passage and be able to play it well and up to tempo – without any “cheating!”

Use a metronome to challenge yourself to practice some things faster.

Some things = scales and arpeggios, for starters. I hope you have figured out that much of your music comes from different scales and arpeggios. So, if you routinely practice those, when you come across them in your music, your fingers will know what to do! Playing scales and arpeggios should become almost automatic for you. Your director says to play a D Major scale – your brain and fingers should know exactly what to do without much thinking at all.

Use your metronome to help you get better and faster at playing scales and arpeggios. First, be sure you can play a scale correctly and evenly at a slow tempo, like a quarter note = mm 90. Then increase the tempo to 120. After mastering that, go back to a setting of 90 and practice your scale in 8th notes, then triplets, then 16th notes. Then increase the tempo settings again and go through the process once more. You get the idea. Gradually increase your tempo until you can play the scale well at increasing speed. Sound boring? Maybe so, but it will pay off in the long run. The better you can play all your scales and arpeggios, the better you will play your music.

But what if I want to play rubato, or take some liberties with the rhythm?

Remember this – Your metronome is a tool, not a master. Use this tool to practice steady rhythm, conquer tricky rhythm, to master even playing. And then, set your metronome aside and play with musicality and feeling, with musicianship. Your metronome is a training tool to master the rhythm technique. Remember when you learned to ride a bicycle? You probably started with training wheels on your bike. After you mastered riding with training wheels, someone took them off, and you learned to ride your bike on your own. Think of your metronome as like training wheels. You can remove the training tool and rely on the skills you already learned at a certain point.  

Where Do I Find a Metronome?

You can find metronomes at most music stores, or you can easily order them online. Pendulum-type metronomes can be cool to have sitting on your piano or in the room where you practice. Small digital metronomes are much easier to carry with you, however. Or you can skip the physical metronomes and get a digital one as an app on your phone. Which kind of metronome you have doesn’t matter much. What matters is that you use one!

So, make friends with your metronome. Your band or orchestra directors will thank you; your fellow musicians will be eternally grateful, and your accompanist will eternally bless you. Even your music teacher will be thrilled with your new rhythm capabilities. And your overall musicianship will improve, which should make even you happy!

Looking for more suggestions about practicing? Check out the following articles:

Practice Like a Pro

I Don’t Know What to Practice

I Don’t Know What to Practice!

I don’t know what to practice! How many times have you heard this phrase recently? Or maybe you are the one guilty of saying this. I get it – if you or your child hasn’t had a lesson in a while, you feel like you are sick of practicing everything your teacher assigned you. Here are some ideas for what your child can practice when he doesn’t know what to practice.

Scales

First and foremost – practice scales! I can’t emphasize this enough – practice scales! All you keyboard players, practice your scales hands apart and hands together. Make sure you use the correct fingering. Play scales in contrary motion and parallel motion. Other instrumentalists, you need to practice scales also! If you are going to continue in music, you must know your scales – major, minor (all three kinds!), chromatic scales. Scales in every key!

Past Pieces

Practice music you already learned, music from the past. How can you play it better? What can you do to make it more expressive and more musical? Learn to play something from memory. Go back and work on those tricky passages again to see if you can make them better, smoother, cleaner. Review pieces you played last month, or last year.

Something New

Try learning some new music on your own. Maybe you have a piece that you always wanted to learn but never got to it in lessons. Have you found an arrangement of your favorite song that you want to learn? Go for it! Approach this new piece the same way you would start new music from your teacher. Be sure to check the key signature, time signature, accidentals, tricky rhythms. Learn something new just for fun.

Arpeggios

Do you know what an arpeggio is? Think of a chord but played just one note at a time. That’s the basic idea of an arpeggio. You find arpeggios all over your music, so practicing them in advance will give you a head start on future music. Keyboardists, you need to be sure you practice arpeggios with correct fingering!

Compose Some Music

Try composing some original music. Wouldn’t your teacher be surprised if you come to your next lesson with some original music to play for her? Think of a little theme or melody, play around with it, add some variety to it – see what you can do! And then, take the challenge further and try to write it out with the correct notes and rhythm. Who knows – you might discover a new passion!

Did I Mention Scales?

Let me reiterate – practice your scales! Scales are foundational to all music! Did you know that most of those long tricky passages you see in more difficult music come from scales? So work on those scales until you no longer need to think how to play them, and you will be ready to face those complicated passages head-on.

OK – Go practice! No more excuses! I’ve just given you lots of ideas of what to practice.

Need some more help or ideas with practicing? Check these posts.

How to Help Your Child Practice

When Your Child Doesn’t Want to Practice

Practice Like a Pro

Practice Like a Pro

Learn how to practice like a pro! Doing well at anything requires practice. Lots of practice! There are no shortcuts! Practice takes time, lots of time. It can be boring. Practice is not usually fun. But learning how to effectively practice is one of the most important things you can learn as a musician! Let me give you some ideas on how to make the most of your practice time.

Best Tips for Effective Practicing

Plan to Practice

Make a plan to practice. Just as you write tasks, assignments, appointments in your planner, do not forget to include your music practice in your daily plans. If you tell yourself that you will practice when you finish everything else, most likely you will not get to the practicing. Choose the time and place to practice that works best for you. My last year in college, because of the way my class and work schedules worked out, my slotted/assigned piano practice time was from 10 p.m. to midnight. Was it ideal? Probably not, but it worked for me. Fortunately for everyone else, the piano I was using was in a separate building, far away from where anyone was trying to sleep!

Always Take Time to Warm Up

No matter when you decide to practice, always take time to warm up. Proper warm up is SO important! This will help you in so many ways. It will prepare you for the practice session, it will get your muscles involved ready to work, and warming up will help you begin to focus on practicing. Warming up is never a waste of time! Work on long tones for tone quality, pitch control and embouchure endurance. Do slow, and then faster scale patterns. Do some physical stretching to prepare your body for the practice session. Always do warm ups!

Be Intentional

Have a plan for each practice session. What are you hoping to accomplish? Be specific. Don’t just hope to play through the first movement of the sonata without any mistakes. Have a plan. “I am going to work on the correct dynamics of the first sonata movement. I think I am missing some crescendos.” The more specific your plan is, the better you will be able to accomplish your goals.

Be Efficient

Your practice time is limited. Use it efficiently! Don’t let your mind wander while you are trying to practice. You won’t know whether you played something correctly or not! Stay focused. Concentrate on what you are playing and how you are playing it. Listen while you play. Do you like what you hear? Why not? What can you do to make it better? Be your own critic and solve the problems you hear. I used to have a teacher who would tell me (repeatedly!) that if my mind was not engaged with what I was playing, I was wasting my time. Who has time to waste in the practice room?

Isolate the Problems

The purpose of practicing is to solve problems. Don’t spend all your time playing a piece from beginning to end repeatedly. Most likely, you can play most of the piece well. Find out where you are having problems, mark them, and focus on correcting the specific problems. Let’s say that in measure 22 you have problems playing an arpeggio section. Don’t play through measure 23 and then go back to the beginning. Take just measure 22 (where the problem is) and work on solving the problem. Play it through very slowly, but correctly. Do it several times that way, then take it just a tiny bit faster. Gradually increase the tempo until you can play it correctly several times at the correct speed. Then play measures 21-23. Does the problem section sound better? Then try playing measures 17-25. When you can do that correctly (several times), then you can think about going back to the beginning of the piece. Don’t waste your time repeatedly playing what you can already play well, focus on the problem parts!

Mark Your Music

There is no rule against marking your music. Smart musicians will mark their music to help them remember what to do, or what not to do. Markings can point out sections that need more practice, accidentals you miss too often, key changes, time signature changes, etc. You may not want to mark all this on your original copy of the music. (For competitions or auditions this would not be a good plan!) Make a copy of the music and mark all over it. Use different colors, use erasable highlighters. Use colored pencils. Whatever works for you. As you are playing through a piece, mark the problem spots so you know what needs special attention. (And so you won’t forget where the problem areas are!) Markings will draw your attention to certain things that you might forget about. You can mark where the melody line is. Mark your dynamic changes. Highlight where different voices enter. (Bach fugues?) Marking your music is a tool to make you a better musician.

Practice Slowly

I had a professor tell me once (or more than once!) that if I could not play the piece/passage correctly slowly, I would never be able to play it correctly up to tempo. He was right. When we play everything up to tempo all the time we learn to sort of gloss over the problem and hope no one notices. When we play through the passage slowly, we hear all the mistakes and unevenness that need to be corrected. So learn to practice slowly, find the problems, solve them, then work your way gradually back to the correct tempo. Slow practice is SO important!!!

Practice until You Cannot Play the Piece Incorrectly

When we practice, we are training muscles to respond correctly so the music is played correctly. We need to practice until our muscles automatically know what to do next – without conscious thought being involved. Our fingers/hands need to know what to do so our mind can focus on making the music flow from the finger/hand response. And that requires much practice! Concentrated, focused practice. Practice until the passage is played correctly every time, not just once in a while. Play a game with yourself – commit to practicing a section until you can play it correctly ten times in a row. If you mess up on time #8 then you have to start over at #1 again. If it takes an hour to accomplish that challenge, then take an hour. But when you finish, you will be able to say that you really accomplished something in that practice session.

Strategies for Solving Problems

Listen to Find the Problems

You must listen while you play in order to find the sections that need extra attention. You can not put your brain in neutral and just mindlessly play through a piece and expect to improve. You must focus and listen. Find where the problems are. Train your mind to listen critically to find things that need attention. Don’t rely on your teacher to find all your problems for you. Be your own critic. It might help to occasionally record yourself, then follow your music while listening to the recording. Mark all the things you hear that are not correct, or that don’t sound quite right to you. Then you know what to go back and work on.

Mark the Problem

One you listen and find a problem passage, mark it! Most likely you will not remember where every problem section is, and then you will waste time trying to find it again. Mark your music when you hear something wrong so you will remember what you need to come back to.

Analyze What is Wrong or What is Causing the Problem

When you begin to work on a problem passage, first, think about what is wrong with it. Are you playing wrong notes? Missing an accidental? Is the rhythm wrong? Is the passage uneven? Are the dynamics wrong? Before you start to practice the passage, you need to know what you are trying to correct.

Isolate

Isolate the problem. Don’t work on two pages if the problem area is only two measures long. Concentrate on solving the problem in just those two measures. When you are confident you can repeatedly play those two measures correctly, then work those two measures back into the context of the piece. Start two measures before the problem and play for a couple measures after the problem. When you can do that well and up to tempo, add in a few more measures.

Practice to Solve the Problem

Remember your focus – what are you trying to correct? Solve the problem! Maybe you need to experiment with different fingering to make the passage easier to play. Maybe you need to mark that missed accidental in some bright color so you can’t possibly miss it again! Keep your mind focused on what you are trying to accomplish. Don’t give up and quit before you finish.

Learn how to practice efficiently and effectively! This is probably one of the most important things you can learn as a musician. The sooner you learn effective practice techniques, the sooner you will become a better musician! So go out and Practice Like a Pro!

Happy Practicing!

This link will give you some additional ideas to help your child practice.

And if your child does not want to practice, here are some ideas that might help.