What is a metronome? And why should I use one?
If those are the first questions to cross your mind on seeing this post, you DEFINITELY need to start using a metronome!
Music is made up of three elements: melody, harmony and RHYTHM. Without good rhythm, it’s next to impossible for another musician to play along with you. And while most humans have a decent general sense of rhythm, our brains interpret time differently depending on the circumstances. Playing an easy passage, your brain often thinks you’re moving more slowly than you are in real time. And difficult passages - your brain thinks you’re moving WAY faster than you actually are as it processes all the information you're throwing at it. So the metronome is a tool we use to check to make sure we're moving at a steady pace all the time.
The question, then, is how to use the metronome effectively?
First: Identify what you’re trying to fix.
Are you trying to just play more steadily in general? Or are you trying to speed up your playing in a controlled manner?
To play more steadily: record yourself playing along with the metronome. Listen back. Where are you not lining up with the beat? Slow those parts down, playing them as accurately as possible at the slower speed, then gradually (just a couple of clicks at a time) increase the tempo. I’d recommend starting them at half the speed you think you can play, moving the tempo up by 2 or 3 only when you can play the passage perfectly three times in a row. When you can play the passage at the same speed as the surrounding material, you're ready!
To speed up in general: pick your most difficult passage. Choose a tempo that feels too easy. Play it as accurately as possible at the slower speed, then gradually increase the tempo. Only move the tempo up by 2 or 3 when you can play the passage perfectly three times in a row. When you can play that bit at the same tempo as the easier parts, move on to the next hardest passage and repeat the process.
When can I increase the tempo?
Listen for notes, rhythms, articulations, ornaments, dynamics, style, groove… only when you have completely mastered all of these elements should you move on. You always want the shift to feel easy - if you feel like you’re reaching, you’re moving too quickly.
So, where do I find a metronome?
There are so many apps and metronomes out there at a wide range of prices. There are a lot of free apps - just search 'metronome' in the app store of your choice - and physical machines that range from around $20 to $400+.
Decide if you want
a digital metronome (I like this slimline Korg one because it fits in the front pocket of my flute gig bag)
or a swinging arm style metronome like your piano teacher might have had when you were a kid - now available in so many colours and styles!
To check before you buy
Do you like the sound? Because you'll be hearing it a LOT.
Do you want to be able to plug headphones in?
Do you want to be able to program it to change metres automatically (if you have a piece that is in multiple time signatures, this can come in handy)
Do you want to be able to control the volume?
Are you ok with having your phone as part of your practice session (as you'll have to with an app) or do you want to stay away from all distractions?
Do you want something you can carry around with you or something that will sit permanently in your practice space?
Make up your list of top preferred features, and then you can decide which type fits your needs best.
Like the tortoise and the hare - slow and steady really does win this race