Using the metronome and developing internal rhythm

Using the metronome and developing internal rhythm

Most musicians would probably consider metronomes an indispensable part of their practice. While they are undoubtedly useful, it’s well worth considering how and why they are used, what skills are being developed in using them, as well as trying creative and unusual ways of practicing with them. Ideally, they can function not as a substitute, but rather as a tool for developing a solid internal sense of rhythm.

I tend not to recommend metronomes to young or beginning students. I figure it’s more important for them to learn how to keep their own steady beat, how to count bars, how to play different rhythms with their own (developing) sense of time, and occasionally, to play with a sympathetic teacher keeping their rhythm on track. Metronomes can be quite unforgiving, forcing people to constantly listen and adjust to external stimuli, and potentially won’t offer much to students who may need to work on their own sense of rhythm generally.

On the other hand, when a musician has a solid foundation in rhythm and time-keeping, metronomes can offer many possibilities to develop further. Slower metronomes are generally better, forcing the student to subdivide the beat carefully, and adjust to the click if they are imprecise (even slight imprecisions are noticeable with slow metronomes). Back in my university days, I would practise scales at 40 beats per minute - the slowest setting on most mechanical metronomes - mentally adding the extra divisions to play at 80, 120, 160 bpm. Modern technology should be capable of going much slower, and keeping time at 20, 10 or even 5 bpm would be an excellent test of internal rhythm and of subdividing the beat. From my own experience, the first several dozen attempts at playing with a slow metronome are difficult and frustrating, but well worth the eventual payoff of a more reliable and more precise sense of time.

Another fun trick revolves around the placement of the metronome’s click, and the division of the beat. If the click is placed on beats 2 and 4 of the bar, it requires the student to keep track of beats 1 and 3 for themselves. If it’s placed on an offbeat, it requires a strong sense of the start of the beat (and familiarity with syncopation) to mentally add in the extra subdivision. It can also be fun to use different subdivisions with the beat - for example, practising scales in triplets, quintuplets and septuplets to the same (slow) beat. Not only does it develop a better sense of these subdivisions, but it develops a different way of responding to the click of a metronome in order to count these unusual groupings.

Of course, in performance, we need a strong internal sense of rhythm, which can’t rely on always having a metronome, as much as we may use it to build up versatility and experience with playing different rhythms. Even for beginner students for whom I don’t recommend using a metronome, I will generally recommend some form of clapping exercises, in order to practise rhythm away from the instrument, and develop an internal sense of the beat, counting, and feeling for rhythm. These vary to whatever skill needs developing - counting on its own, clapping certain rhythms, polyrhythms and patterns, or working towards intuitive understanding of rhythms.

One particularly useful exercise involves clapping a rhythm or pattern, and talking at the same time. My first experience of this exercise was learning it while quite jetlagged, and being taught by an excellent jazz pianist who could improvise rather complicated rhythms quite freely while holding a deep conversation about why it was so important. The particular term used was to ‘dissociate’ from the rhythm, in effect meaning that the sense of time and feeling of the beat would continue without having to be thought about. In practise, this means that keeping rhythm would be entirely intuitive, and this particular teacher (in demonstration of the practical effect of the exercise) was capable of stretching many aspects of their playing without having to worry about keeping track of the beat, of the bar, or even the entire form of a piece.

In essence, metronomes are definitely useful tools, but not a substitute for a deeper sense of rhythm. While they’re important to use, considering how they’re used can ensure rhythm keeps developing, and that they serve as a means to the end of solid and reliable internal rhythm.

Words by James Ball.

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