My first guitar teacher and I lasted six months before I broke it off. I wasn’t being challenged, and felt I was learning more from guitar magazines than the guy we were paying every week. If you know me, this will make sense–I needed to know I was learning the correct way. I needed assurance that we were starting from the beginning and taking all the right steps. So we did a bit of homework, bought a classical guitar and a footrest, and I started up with one of the best guitar teachers in the region.
I’ll never forget my first and sixth lessons. My sixth lesson was thirty minutes dedicated to proper nail-filing technique. But my first lesson was my first time using a metronome. We used the metronome ALL THE TIME. It was ticking when I came into the lesson, it was ticking when I left, it ticked in the background while my teacher gave me feedback. The constant ticking was enough to drive you mad, but you know how they say there’s a fine line between madness and genius?
The metronome calmly clicks away, judging your musical performance. At first it really seems like it’s out to get you: speeding up for all the hard parts and slowing down for all the boring parts! How does it know?! But with care and practice the steady pace of the metronome becomes more attainable, more natural. The metronome becomes that trusted friend who tells you the truth even when it hurts. And the truth is: you need help keeping time.
As a practice tool, the metronome is without peer. No other habit has as much potential to improve your playing. Even if you’re playing a musical style that “breathes” with tempo movement, like classical music, the metronome will train you to identify a steady tempo. I would argue that you can’t purposely speed up or slow down until you’ve first learned to keep a steady pace.
It’s not enough to merely learn to tolerate the metronome. We need to learn to love it! So here are some steps to awakening a passion for accurate time.
–or, How to Practice with a Metronome:
1. Get a metronome Free metronomes are just a google search away! You can also find free metronome apps for your iOS or Android device, and I’m sure Blackberry has something too. For those at the Meeting House or other churches that subscribe, Planning Center Online has a metronome tool right in the media player and “Music Stand” tool. I am a big fan of metronomes that click, as opposed to ones that beep.
2. Start slow Metronomes are more about accuracy than speed. Starting at a slow speed, maybe half the actual tempo, is a great way to focus on accuracy by removing the distraction of having to play fast. For example, if a song’s tempo is 120 bpm, start practicing with the metronome set to 60 bpm. At this speed I would concentrate on perfect technique and execution. As a guitarist, this includes details like the exact placement of my fingers relative to the frets, using the correct finger for each note, proper picking direction and striking the strings “just so”. And, of course, landing each note at the exact right moment. As a musician, you should be aware of what you need to watch for in your own learning process.
3. Accelerate slowly Once you’ve mastered a song/chord sequence/lead part at half tempo, it’s time to start increasing the speed. Move in increments of 10 bpm or so and remember accuracy is still the goal! If you find you can’t play the part accurately at a given speed, move the tempo back down and practice some more!
4. Break the posted speed limit One of the best practice techniques for challenging parts is to practice at a higher speed than needed. Moving in increments of 5 to 10 bpm, increase the tempo until you are beyond the tempo you need. Keep increasing the tempo until you really can no longer keep up, then jump back down to the actual tempo. It will feel like a walk in the park!
There are plenty more ways to practice metronome, but these should get you started. Now, as a special treat (and in case you still aren’t convinced to try a metronome) here’s a link to one of my favourite movie scenes of all time. The metronome montage from the Red Violin.
Keep it steady out there!