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How to Improve Your Time: A Metronome Survival Guide

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You probably have a metronome sitting in your practice room right now. Or maybe you have one of those fancy apps on your phone that has a million features. But are you actually getting the most out of your metronome? Do you really know how to use it?  

If your metronome practice looks anything like this…

  • Turn metronome on
  • Set tempo
  • Attempt to play with the click
  • Turn metronome off
  • Consider throwing metronome out the window

…it might be time for a metronome reboot. There are many more ways to use a metronome than just having it click out 4/4 quarter notes.

Let’s dig into 4 ways to you can level up your metronome use, improve your sense of time, and survive your next metronome practice session.  

Slow Practice

Topping the list of most effective metronome skills, is slow practice. Slow practice is the key to fast tracking your improvement, but it requires a little patience. It’s not just for musicians either. Martial artists, professional golfers, and athletes of all kinds all recognize the benefits of slow practice.

What it is:

  • a speed where you can easily process and evaluate the all of the relevant information while maintaining a calm mind
  • Maintaining an awareness of what you are doing and why you are doing it is critical for this type pf practice to be effective

When to use it:

  • when learning new pieces
  • working fast passages that require fine motor skills
  • focusing on small details like dynamics or articulation

How to use it:

  • Choose a short, technical excerpt
  • Assign the pulse to the shortest note value in the excerpt (8th, 16th, 32nd, etc.)
  • Set your metronome to 60bpm
  • Work the passage with the shortest value getting the click
  • Repeat this a few times, then switch to 16ths getting the beat.
  • Then 8ths, and finally back to quarter notes.

It’s like switching the lens on a microscope. You’re shifting your perspective on where the pulse is. Wind players and vocal musicians––take breathes wherever you need to at this tempo.

One warning about the mechanics of slow practice: be sure to maintain the same efficient motions that are required to properly produce a tone on your instrument. Students often slow everything down (bow speed, articulations, etc.) during slow practice, and ingrain bad habits that hinder them when they return to performance tempos. For example, a brass player’s tongue needs to remain quick and efficient even when practicing at a slow tempo. A pianist’s fingers need to strike the keys in the same manner regardless of the tempo.

The Dotted Rhythm Game

When I need to tackle an intricate or chromatic technical passage, the Dotted Rhythm Game is my go-to exercise.

What it is:

  • Replacing straight 8ths or 16ths patterns with dotted rhythms
  • Dotted patterns give us a second to process what is coming next in a difficult passage, while still maintaining a connected musical line

When to use it:

  • When learning difficult scalar passages that keep a steady tempo
  • Working passages with awkward intervals or leaps

How to use it:

  • Use with passages that have extended runs or long repeated patterns
  • Set your metronome to 60bpm
  • Replace straight 8ths or 16th with dotted or swing rhythms
  • Alternate long/short or short/long
  • Swap this around in various patterns
  • As you feel more confident, notch your metronome up a few clicks
  • Be sure to connect the dotted rhythms in a legato style. Don’t clip any of the notes

The point is to create a smooth and connected technique that you can retain when you go back to the printed rhythms at performance tempo.

Check out this great explanation from Allen Mathews at “Classical Guitar Shed” to learn more about this technique. (Skip to 1:24)

Time Bar Breaks

It’s easy to play in time when there is a helpful click on every measure. But what happens when the metronome is shut off or the beat suddenly drops out? Is your inner pulse reliable? Practicing with Time Bar Breaks will show you exactly where you rush or drag.

What it is:

  • A programmable metronome, drum machine app or sequencer that sets up a beat pattern that drops in and out at various places
  • I like to use two different iPhone apps for this–“Tonal Energy” (TE Tuner) and “Drum Beats+

When to use it:

  • Any steady tempo passage that you tend to rush or drag
  • When practicing any type of pattern or improvisation over a steady beat

How to use it: Tonal Energy Tuner

  • Open the app and go to the metronome function
  • Select a meter of 8/4
  • Set the tempo to a medium practice tempo (90ish)
  • Set the beats to 4 on/4 off by tapping the rectangles
  • Let the pattern cycle a few times, then begin your excerpt
  • Keep playing through the four beats of silence
  • Don’t cheat by looking at the flashing lights. Put the phone out of view
  • See how close you are to landing the downbeat when the clicks come back in. Were you ahead? Behind? Right on the beat?
  • Repeat this exercise with a variety of passages and practice tempos
  • Extend the amount of silence by 4 or 8 beats for an added challenge

How to use it: Drum Beats+

  • Open the app and scroll down to Timing––Bar Breaks
  • Start with “Bar Break Straight 2&2”
  • Set a medium practice tempo for your excerpt (90ish)
  • Let the pattern cycle a few times, then begin your excerpt
  • Keep playing through the four beats of silence
  • See how close you are to landing the downbeat when the clicks come back in. Were you ahead? Behind? Right on the beat?
  • Repeat this exercise with a variety of passages and practice tempos

*This type of metronome practice doesn’t work well for music with a lot of time changes or rubato, so keep that it mind when choosing your excerpt.

Phasing Practice

This is an advanced technique for establishing rhythmic stability and sharpening your concentration skills.

What it is:

  • Systematically shifting the downbeat of a passage over by one 8th or 16th at a time, until you cycle all the way back to the first downbeat
  • This technique of shifting the beats over as you practice is called phasing

When to use it:

  • When practicing scales, or scalar passages

How to use it:

  • Isolate a short technical passage
  • Set a very slow practice tempo
  • Start a passage on the downbeat as you normally would
  • Then, mentally shift the downbeat over to the second 16th, then the 3rd, 4th, etc.
  • For example, 1–e­–&–a–2–e–&–a, shifts to starting the passage on the 2nd 16th or “e”. That means you would play the passage as e––&––a––1––e––&––a––2, etc.

This drill allows you to experience the pulse of the passage in a lot of new ways.

A great example of this technique is minimalist composer Steve Reich’s piece, “Clapping Music”. Here’s are links to the sheet music and a great performance:

Sheet Music for “Clapping Music”

Performance of “Clapping Music”

Challenge: See if you and a practice buddy can clap through this piece without getting lost

The Takeaway

This list of metronome tools is by no means complete. Be creative when you approach learning how to play in time, and remember that the ultimate goal is to play musically and communicate something to your audience.

Bonus: Make a Play-Along Recording

One quick bonus. A great way to put all of this into practice is by making play-along recordings for your excerpts. I’ll go deeper into this topic another time, but having a stable, in tune/in time practice track to practice with is a fantastic tool.

What it is:

  • A supportive recording that you’ve made that is in time, in tune, and musical
  • Some pattern or section part that acts like training wheels for your excerpts
  • Doesn’t have to be from the actual piece––can just be you clapping and singing along as your teacher might in you private lessons

When to use it:

  • Any time you want to make your metronome practice fun and engaging

How to use it:

  • Find a section part that supports your excerpt
  • Set a metronome and drone
  • Give yourself a verbal count in (i.e. “one, two, ready, play”)
  • Record yourself playing, singing or clapping the part
  • Record over and over until you are satisfied with the quality
  • Switch back to the original part, and play along with your new recording
  • Repeat this and record yourself until you feel good about your time

This technique is incredibly effective. I’ve made play-alongs for almost all of orchestral excerpts––it’s a great way to make metronome practice fun!

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Please feel free to comment below if you want to chime in. Or even better, let’s continue the conversation over in the Honesty Pill Facebook Group:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/842221892785187/

 

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4 thoughts on “How to Improve Your Time: A Metronome Survival Guide”

  1. Gabriel Langfur

    Great stuff Chris! I use an app called Time Guru – check it out. It’s a rhythmic training app that functions well as a metronome even if you don’t use the advanced functions.

    On of the functions randomly mutes a percentage of the beats. Another allows you to establish a tempo and then silence whichever beats you want. It’s also programmable for shifting meters, which you can then vary the tempos of, silence beats randomly or deliberately, etc.

    I also like to play simple material – usually scales – with my foot tapping or a metronome going, moving the notes around to different subdivisions while maintaining a calm, unaccented articulation style.

    1. Hey Gabe, thanks for the comment! I will add that one to my list. So many options out there for musician’s tools…certainly a far cry from our Sony Pro Walkmen and metronomes the size of shoe boxes!

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