I heard Chopin’s beautiful Waltz in A minor in a class the other day. The basic feeling, tempo, balance between the hands and the pedalling were extremely good, and there were some lovely sounds. But I was struck by how straightjacketed the performance felt to me from a rhythmical perspective. When I asked if he had been using a metronome, he told me he had been practising on a digital piano with a waltz backing track. Doing this regularly had completely ironed out any sense of natural phrasing and timing, and the sort of gentle ebb-and-flow rubato this piece needs to bring it to life in performance.
When I was a boy, fascinated with music and how it all worked, I once tried to synchronise the new metronome I was given for Christmas with an LP recording – just to check whether whoever was playing was doing so in time, since this was stressed as being very important by my teacher. I had a few LP vinyl records at that stage, but no matter which recording I used I was unable to get the metronome to line up with the beats from the record for more than a bar or so. Naturally I assumed it was my metronome that was faulty, and thought of asking for it to be fixed, or swapped for one that worked properly. I didn’t know at the time that no artistic performance of any piece of music could be bound to a fixed beat, rigidly applied.
You’re probably thinking – sure, Romantic period music would obviously make no sense when played against a metronome but anything Baroque would synch up, wouldn’t it? Certainly so strict-looking a page of semiquavers as we find in Bach’s C minor Prelude from Book 1? You’ll discover that even this will not tally with a metronome.
Have a listen to Glenn Gould’s recording of this Prelude and discover for yourself what happens. The playing starts at what my metronome logs at crotchet = 81 but very soon it drags against the beat. Fast forward a bit and now he seems to be playing at 79, before shooting up to 84. He is not together with the metronome for more than a bar. Test this out against similar, motoric pieces from the period (all the recordings of the Two-Part Invention in F that I listened to contained similar fluctuations).
To purchase my study edition of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C minor with the stepladder approach to practising, click here
What does this tell us? Not even motoric music from a style period often erroneously thought of as “metronomic” can be imprisoned and completely controlled by an external, mechanical, inflexible beat. Try setting your metronome against other recordings of this piece, or indeed any other piece, and see what you discover.
Am I suggesting we dispense with practising with the metronome, and the idea of a regular pulse and play our pieces as we feel?
One of the fundamental skills we teach on the Piano Teachers’ Course UK is the importance of establishing a basic pulse before every single activity in a piano lesson, having trainee teachers counting their pupil in (who after a while learn to count themselves in). There are very few activities we do at the piano that are not connected to a rhythmic pulse, and we cannot assume the beginner pianist will find this by themselves without regular encouragement and practice. By taking a moment to set the pulse before everything we play, even the humblest scale or exercise, we develop our inner conductor (as well as our inner dancer) and we’re in the groove from the very first note.
Scales, technical work and many phrases in many pieces can be played beautifully with metronomic precision. The problem begins at phrase ends, or other breathing places where the rigidity of the pulse needs to bend to produce music that is human, as opposed to robotic. There are some spots where we might need to imperceptibly restrain a downbeat (placing it slightly late to add rhythmic emphasis), and other spots where we might want to be a tad on the early side of the beat. In general, the backwards-forwards ebb and flow that is natural to virtually all music will inevitably contradict a metronome.
The metronome is a tool and, like other practice tools, it is there to be used. Problems arise when slavish adherence to its robotic beat irons out the natural beauty of music never intended to be played this way. It is true that some occasional work with a metronome at a variety of different practice tempi can certainly help secure control in a tricky technical passage.
Think carefully before you get out your metronome – what exactly are you hoping to achieve by using it in your practice session today? If you are playing beautifully and find to your dismay you are not together with the metronome, I hope this article has allayed your fears.