I have been working on a new chapter on the uses and abuses of the metronome for Volume 3 of my ebook series, due to be published after Easter. For those who may love practising with a metronome, it feels important to offer some alternatives so you’re not left high and dry. Before I get to these, I need to discuss beat quality.
All the metronome can really do is parcel up the music into equal capsules of time, one identical to the other, but music doesn’t work like this. It is easy to hear when someone has been practising with the metronome, listening to them play is the equivalent of viewing a movie frame by frame. The bigger gestures, such as phrase direction, natural ebb and flow and any subtleties of expressive timing go by the board and are obliterated. A point that is often missed here is that each beat of the bar has a different quality according to its metric placement in the bar. Eighteenth century theorists speak of “good and bad notes” but in Dalcrozian speak, the first beat of the bar (the downbeat, otherwise known as the crusis) is felt as a release of energy. The last beat (anacrusis) is a preparation of energy for the release, and is not really a weak beat as traditional teaching misleadingly describes it. The metacrusis is anything occuring between the crusis and anacrusis (the second beat in 3/4, the second and third beats in 4/4), the reaction to the crusis or the ripple effect. Getting back to the anacrusis, if I am lifting something up against gravity to prepare to put it down, this can hardly be described as “weak”. Depending on the tempo and the expressive content of the music, the anacrusis can be highly energetic. Comparing all this with breathing, think of the inhalation as the anacrusis, the momentary holding of the breath the metacrusis and the exhalation the crusis.
The better modern electronic metronomes go some way to addressing the issue of the different qualities of the beats in a bar by offering sounds with a variety of different timbres and volumes. Metronome Bounce
is one I can recommend. You have the option to set up the bar to reflect beat qualities and to set certain beats to silent. Because the screen features a bouncing ball, you can see the trajectory and could even use this with the sound switched off. While this has to be a step in the right direction, a mechanical device is never going to give the whole picture.
Disadvantages of the Metronome
We all know that practising the piano is challenging. We need to be constantly on the alert for how we sound, how our body feels, how accurately we are managing the notes, and so on. Our mind and our ears need to be completely involved. Effective practice demands our full attention at all times and anything that allows us to go on autopilot needs to be treated with great caution. Practising with the metronome is all too easy to fall back on when we can’t think of anything else to do. We know we need to practise, to fill in a certain amount of practice time, but we can’t come up with a creative solution. So, we resort to the type of mechanical practice that the metronome can give us – we stop really listening, we stop thinking. In a sense practising with the metronome can be compared with taking sleeping pills. It is OK once in a while, maybe even recommended on occasion but as a routine it becomes a crutch that doesn’t really serve us, at all. Here are some disadvantages of using the metronome:
• It is unmusical, mechanical and boring.
• We stop listening to ourselves, to the sounds we are producing from the piano and instead divert our attention to listening to the metronome.
• A good performance is never structured by the beat, a parcelling up of the music into tiny equal units. This would be like looking at a movie frame by frame, there would be no sense in it. Music communicates in larger gestures, where bars lead to phrases and phrases to paragraphs.
• A good performance is full of tiny, often imperceptible deviations from the beat. It is inevitable and necessary that there be an ebb and flow of rhythm in virtually all music, not just in romantic music associated with rubato.
• For more criticisms of the metronome by famous musicians, read the Wikiquote page
on the metronome, where the critical comments far outweigh the favourable ones.
Far be it from me to leave you high and dry without practical solutions. Here are a couple.
Counting Out Loud
One of the very best ways of keeping time is to count out loud as you practise. Not only does this help to keep the pulse, coordinating the voice in a disciplined way with the playing adds an extra layer of difficulty. If you can master a passage counting as you play, when you stop doing this it all feels much easier. In my classes with Leon Fleisher he spoke about this several times, it was something he really believed in. Here are some suggestions:
• Don’t simply mark time with the voice – reflect the strength and qualities of the beats in the voice – crusis, metacrusis, anacrusis.
• Vary how you count. Count each main beat, then count every other beat and finally only the downbeats.
• Subdivide the beats so that you count the lowest common denominator. For example, in Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata counting the semiquaver beats out “1-e-and-a, 2-e-and-a, etc.” in the first four bars enables you to play the opening in time. The counting can still be flexible, with forward and backward motion, so the result is musical rather than mechanical.
In addition to counting as above, there are various ways of vocalising as you play, or just before you play a passage. If you are able, you can sing using the actual pitches, perhaps on a “lah”, or “tah” syllable. For a better result, we can borrow a technique from jazz singers – scat singing. In scat singing, we can use any sounds we like, they don’t need to have any meaning. Traditionally, jazz singers use nonsense syllables such as “doo”, “dah” or “bah” for longer notes, percussive ones such as “dit” or “bop” for shorter ones, “dooby”, “dooby-doo”, and so on for faster groups. There really are no rules for this. The beauty of scat improvisation is that you don’t have to plan in advance which sounds you’re going to use, anything that comes out will be fine! Once you get over the initial self consciousness, you will be able to vocalise freely at the piano. Your voice becomes an instrument, and you don’t need any vocal training or singing skills whatever. One last but important thing – don’t worry about being on pitch. You can vocalise the precise pitches if you are able but this is not at all necessary. The important thing is to get the rhythm exact, reflecting the energy and the dynamic of the music through your voice. If you can get the rough shape of the line so much the better. Some response to the ups and downs in pitch is enough.