How to use metronome for piano practice – 5 (effective) ways to improve your sense of rhythm and tempo control.
In today’s article, I would like to focus on five effective metronome piano practice strategies for developing a strong sense of rhythm and tempo control for music students and teachers.
What is a metronome?
A metronome is a mechanical device used to ‘establish a musical tempo’. Two hundred years after its invention by Nicolaus Winkel in 1912 (Fallows, 2001), the metronome is still considered one of the main tools for developing a strong sense of rhythm and tempo. Nowadays, it is conveniently available also as an app for a smartphone or tablet.
Metronome piano practice
For many pianists, a metronome is a golden solution to unwanted tempo variations. When used regularly, the inner sense of tempo and of regular beats becomes stronger and well-controlled. In such cases, the metronome usage decreases over time to become an occasional constant.
On the other hand, many students report that even though the metronome practice has helped them achieve near-perfect time-precise performances, as soon as the machine was stopped, every subsequent play-through decreased their tempo control and stability.
It seems that through practice they have learned to follow and to play exactly together with the metronome but did not develop a strong and innate sense of timing.
Students who rely on the metronome to provide them with a strong sense of pulse can quickly become ‘addicted’ to metronome practice. Every time they want to play something precisely in time, they are forced to use a metronome, but as soon as the machine or an app is switched off, their timing becomes less and less stable.
The advice given below aims at helping those students and pianists who feel that practicing with a metronome is an endless effort that does not result in a better sense of rhythm and tempo but in a greater need for constant and addictive use of the metronome.
To benefit from the exercises described below, you MUST be able to assess whether your practicing is conducted absolutely IN TIME.
To achieve this, you should record and listen back to your practice sessions. Hearing them being played back will allow you to spot any tempo or rhythm inaccuracies.
PLEASE DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP.
You may also ask a qualified teacher to check your rhythm exercises, which can usually be done only once a week during a piano lesson.
Please also make sure that the pieces and rhythms you are practicing are of an appropriate level of difficulty. You might need to seek advice from an experienced teacher.
Strategy 1: Beginner level – learn to count while moving your body in time
This section is written for those who find it extremely difficult to move their fingers, hands or entire bodies to a specified time or beat (who generally struggle with timing in music).
Try some of the simple exercises in rhythm learning:
- Turn the metronome on and count to 2, 3, 4, and 6, trying to follow it as closely as possible;
- When counting aloud, make sure your words are spoken in a very decisive way;
- With the metronome on, walk around the room stomping your feet exactly together with the metronome beats; do it also when counting aloud (pick a beat of 2, 3, 4 or 6)
- With the metronome on, count aloud the main beats of your piece, and try to clap the rhythm of a single hand/both hands;
- Vary the metronome volume sound. Sometimes very soft metronome beat forces us to focus on it better than the very loud one.
An excellent and free resource containing many exercises for developing a strong sense of rhythm is “Elementary Training for Musicians” by composer Paul Hindemith. You can download it via Petrucci Music Library HERE, and it will allow you to progress from the very beginner to a completely professional level.
Finally, if all else fails, take dancing lessons. Yes! For those with extreme difficulties in feeling the beats, learning to dance is often the best advice anyone can ever get.
Strategy 2 – Intermediate to advanced level (metronome addiction cure)
To fight and overcome the ‘metronome addiction’, it is necessary to treat the machine (or an app) only as a guide. You must focus on developing an inner sense of beats rather than spending countless hours learning how to follow and play music exactly together with the metronome (although this should be your first step – see Strategy 1 above).
I believe that one of the best ways to develop this inner voice is through counting aloud.
Begin by playing the section or an entire piece with the metronome on while counting aloud the main beats of each bar. If it feels challenging and confusing, start at a slow tempo and increase it when your confidence improves. Alternate between play-throughs with and without the metronome – always counting aloud.
Every ten minutes, change the counted note value (alternate between crochets, minims, quavers and even semiquavers, as far as the tempo and your voice allows).
Your loud and confident counting should become a ‘conductor’ of your playing. If your listening focuses on your voice, you can use it as a ‘conductor’. If you focus on listening to the sound of your piece, you will most likely adjust your counting to the distorted rhythm of the music.
After an hour of such practice, play the piece with no metronome on and no counting aloud. You should experience a clear beat counted by your inner voice, and your entire body will begin to feel it as well.
If this process is done sufficiently often (depending on the student, roughly about 6 months), you will develop an inner counting which can then replace the passive following of the metronome in your practice. The active sense of rhythm will be born from the inner voice. You should gradually be able to play evenly at a given tempo without the metronome or counting allow, and will use the metronome just to check for any outstanding issues, to memorize the speed of a piece, or to control the gradual tempo increase often advised in solving technical challenges.
Please note that this approach is suitable even for the most demanding and sophisticated pieces.
Strategy 3 – Adjust inconsistent sections
This method is only useful to pianists who can clearly hear whether they can play exactly together with the metronome.
Play the piece or a section of it with the metronome at whatever speed you are currently working on. After you finish, please note in the music any parts where you felt the metronome was either pushing to go faster or slowing you down.
Repeat the problematic section a few times without the metronome, adjusting their tempo according to your notes (for example, speed up parts that were initially too slow, slow down those which were too fast).
Play again with the metronome to check for any remaining inconsistencies.
Strategy 4 – Vary your practice speed
Use your metronome to practice at various speeds, particularly slow. Sometimes overlooked are practicing slightly under the intended performance speed, beginning your practice at a fast pace and gradually lowering the tempo, or practicing faster than the performance speed.
Strategy 5 – Expression in practicing with a metronome
A widespread complaint regarding metronome practice is that overusing it can cause unmusical playing. That is indeed possible, but training in tempo and rhythm control should be a priority – particularly at the early stages of learning. Without it, even a very musical and artistically expressive performance can sound distorted.
When you feel that your tempo control has improved, try to play your music with the metronome on but be very expressive simultaneously. You will learn how to disassociate tempo and expression from each other and understand how extensive your rubatos actually are.
Metronome practice – other uses
There are several other practical uses of a metronome in our everyday practice:
- Check the tempo consistency across many sections of a single piece;
- Set the common beat between sections containing complex rhythms to figure out how they relate to each other;
- Memorize the tempo of a piece of music.
I hope the metronome practice strategies described above will be useful to you in developing a strong sense of pulse and time control. Please note that this process takes time, and it should be counted in months rather than days. A metronome is a precious tool for improving timing issues in music, but as with any method, it is essential to apply it consciously and methodically otherwise, it will become another source of bad habits, boredom, and dependency.
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Happy practicing and teaching everyone!