To metronome or not to metronome

The traditional metronome was a wind-up device located in a wooden case, pyramidal in shape. Its adjustable pendulum was, and still is, used to keep precise tempo. The first metronome was soundless and required the user to look at it (imagine a conductor’s baton, if you can). Then the German inventor, Johann Maelzel, designed a metronome that was also audible. Battery operated electronic metronomes were invented in the 20th century; however, you can now download free metronome apps on your phone or tablet. The reason that the metronome has evolved over centuries is because it is essential and effective.

Most musical pieces have a metronome suggestion, indicated as a certain number of beats per minute. As a student musician, one often finds it tedious to be instructed to practice with a metronome – it is almost a punishment (like practicing scales). However, as soon as you reap the rewards of practicing in such a methodical manner, you should appreciate its benefits. Be mindful, though, that hypnotic repetition can hinder your musical interpretation and freedom of expression. So, as with most other things in life, too much of a good thing can be bad for you. I prefer to stop using the metronome as soon as my musical muscle memory starts to kick in. Here are my five tips to making optimal use of your metronome:

  1. Start slowly. Using a metronome forces you to arrange the music within a certain number of beats per bar. If you battle with the technical and physical demands of a section, then set your metronome to a slower tempo.
  2. Repeat. Repeat difficult sections to ensure that you build up your musical muscle memory. This is applicable to any instrument. Please note that the secret, once again, is to start slowly. If you practice something incorrectly, you will need to work extra hard to undo what you have established in your muscle memory.
  3. Increase your tempo slowly. As soon as you are comfortable with a section, don’t be in a hurry to immediately attempt it at double the tempo. Take baby steps. First you crawl, then you take a few steps – before you attempt a marathon.
  4. Find your downbeat. Most metronomes have a function that can emphasize the first beat of the bar – this accent helps to give perspective of the bigger picture and can be used to guide you to arrive at the next bar on time.
  5. Persevere. If at first you don’t succeed, go back to Step 1. Be patient – it usually pays off.

Trust the process and have fun practicing!

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