Practicing with a metronome

May 6th, 2011

While we’re still on the subject of rhythm, (yes, I know I do have an obsessive streak in me) let’s do some practicing with a metronome.

But first, a note about playing with a metronome.

When you play with a metronome, always let it lead you. Become totally subservient to it. Focus your attention on it and follow it. This is a critical part of metronome technique.

To do this, play softer. This will help you hear the metronome better and take your focus away from your playing and onto the metronome.

Let’s try a simple piece with a constant stream of sixteenth notes, perhaps a Carcassi study from his opus 60. Numbers 2 or 7 will work well and both happen to be my favorites.

First, set the metronome on the quarter notes, perhaps one quarter to 52. (This is just a suggestion. You can try a faster tempo if it helps you keep time better.)

Start by listening to the beat. Feel that pulse within you. As you listen to it, start to anticipate the beat. Feel each beat coming up and tap your foot with it. What you want to do first is develop your ability to predict when the next beat is going to arrive by anticipating it.

As you get used to the groove, start to play the piece.

Now, this is very important, make sure you land the notes absolutely right on the beat. As jazzers will say, play right on top of the beat.

Your playing and the beat should occur together, simultaneously, and sound like one. That’s how tight you want your playing to be. And play the subdivisions, the sixteenth notes, as precisely as possible between the beats.

Again, focus all your attention on the metronomic beat, and make your notes line up precisely with the beats. Don’t worry about mistakes, worry more about getting your notes right on the beat.

Your playing should sound very strict and mechanical. This is, of course, just for practice purposes. In real life, your rhythm should be much more flexible and contain many subtle inflections.

But for now, the focus is on precision.

When you feel confident about your ability to place your notes right on the beat, bring the exercise up a notch.

Put the metronome on the eighth notes. If you’re playing at 52, just double it to 104. You haven’t increased the tempo, you’re still playing at quarter notes to 52, except now you have the metronomic beat on every eight note.

Now, play the piece again, playing each eighth note right on top of the beat. And make the subdivisions as precise as possible too.

Practice this way for a while, mechanically, focusing on precision, playing right on top of the beat.

Now we’re ready to go to the next level again. Set the metronome on the fastest setting 208 and play the sixteenth notes on every beat.

Again, the tempo hasn’t changed, what’s changed is that now you have the metronomic beat on every sixteenth note. The basic tempo is still quarter note to 52.

Play the piece again, focusing on precision, on playing the sixteenth notes right on each beat.

The whole point of these exercises is to train your technical and rhythmic control and to develop your ability to follow an external rhythmic beat. (The concept of separating your rhythm from your playing is central to the AOV and crucial to rhythmic mastery.)

If you can play the above three exercises and make your playing follow the metronomic beat precisely, you’ve achieved both technical and rhythmic mastery.

That’s because you need both skills to be able to do what you just did.

You need great rhythmic skill to be able to sense when the beats are going to occur, and you need great technical skill to be able to execute your notes precisely right on those beats when they do occur.

The above progression of going from quarter notes to sixteenth notes is just a suggestion. You can reverse the order and start from sixteenth notes and work your way to the quarter notes instead.

Either way, you should have incredible control over your subdivisions by the time you’re done.

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