Make friends with your metronome

That pyramid-shaped clicking device, which back in the day used to be a hefty, wooden, wind-up device (well they still are…) and cost at least half an arm, if not a full one plus a leg too. These days anyone with a smart phone, which is pretty much most folks, can have their very own metronome for just the price of a coffee. I personally use a metronome app on on my iPhone called Tempo – a very useful little app indeed.

Metronome with guitar
Metronome with guitar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So with these kinds of apps out there at literally the touch of a button for a minimal cost, there is absolutely no excuse not to be using one!

So why are they so important?

The metronome is a great indicator of the following of whether:

  1. you’re actually playing in time
  2. that interesting rhythmic bit in bar 42, that set of grace of notes, that syncopation,  that triplet or quintuplet, or that bit you could swear blind is really in time actually is in time
  3. you do really know what you’re playing – when playing everything at the same tempo one can realise where there are perhaps a few stumbling blocks or little “knots’ in the music that need a bit of attention and teasing out
  4. you’re speeding up because a section is “easy” or perhaps the nature of the music lends itself to that if you’re not careful
  5. you’re slowing down to allow for a technical challenge rather than for the purposes of expression that you might be doing when playing without the metronome

Well, I most definitely advocate for my students to use a metronome whilst practicing scales, at least a couple of times of week, particularly to engender that sense of pulse, resisting the urge to speed up and ensuring evenness between the notes. The metronome is also particularly useful in training one to play faster tempi whilst maintaining evenness, for example, in scales.

To do this I set the metronome at a comfortable tempo and play the scale at that tempo. I then notch it up say two or three beats per minute, and play the scale at that tempo – always listening to the sound quality I’m creating of course – and being aware of the evenness of the notes. I then continue to keep notching up two or three beats per minute until I notice I’m tripping up – this reveals where there may some attention required to the movement of the left hand, the right hand and/ or the two in combination.

I don’t advocate, however, that the metronome should be used all of the time. Far from it.

Once that feel of the tempo and the pulse in a scale or a piece has become more engrained, and that playing straight ahead is mastered, then it’s time to put the metronome away. That’s when you can begin to shape and refine the music you’re making, the subtle pushes and pulls in phrases, the rubato, the rits and the ralls.

But you’ve first got to know where your boundaries are, so you can push beyond them. Is it time you made friends with your metronome?

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Counting!

If someone were to tap my teaching studio with a bug or a wire (I’ve clearly been watching too much detective stuff on the TV….), the listener may well think I were obsessed with one particular word. And they’d probably be right.

What is that word?

Counting.

I did write a piece on this back in September of last year, but I think it’s about time for a revisit on this subject.

So why is counting so important when playing the guitar? Well, I would hope that the answer to this question is reasonably evident, but not being one to make any assumptions and to have no expectations let’s explore.

Begin at the beginning

Before we start a piece how do we know what tempo (i.e. how fast or slow) we’re going to play at? We might hear the opening few bars in our head, which implies an innate, unconscious style of counting. However, to get to this stage we perhaps have been playing a piece for some time.

What happens when we’re new to a piece, or somewhat unfamiliar? How do we know how fast or slow we’re going to crack into the music? The simple answer is we count ourselves in, counting in at the tempo we wish to start the piece.

Example of "count chant" method
Example of “count chant” method (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This sets us up for starting the piece in exactly the right way, the most comfortable way – the fingers, the hands, the brain (both your conscious and unconscious bits) all know exactly what they’re doing tempo-wise. A much more relaxing state to start playing in than just starting clean off the bat, no counting in, flying by the seat of your pants, wahey, kinda guessing. And if you’re playing for an audience, by you counting yourself in (most probably in your head. Wonderful thing the inner monologue!), chances are that they’re going to feel a whole lot more comfortable, relaxed, reassured and entertained by your playing.

And don’t stop there!

Whatever level you are on the instrument at present, everyone can benefit from actively counting throughout a piece in the early stages of learning a piece. This might even take the form of counting out loud. And especially so during tricky rhythmic sections.

And when I say everyone, I mean everyone. Everyone.

And yes, I still do it. Like a woman possessed. I even pencil it in to my scores when learning. I regularly show my students, for example, scores from the guitar orchestra I play in – pencil everywhere, particularly in some interesting syncopated percussion-type parts.

I hear a lot of “ah well, I was just kind of, you know, intuitively feeling it….” Hmmm. That’s good, but the pulse might have felt a little off centre and perhaps those dotted quavers weren’t quite sitting on the beat, were they? I encourage “feeling”, but before we get to the “feeling” part we’ve got to do the “knowing” and “understanding” bits first.

There seems to be some kind of seeming shamefulness in the need to count! Where does this come from?! Let’s change this! To count is noble! It demonstrates care and consideration for the piece of music you’re about to or are playing. It demonstrates that even if you think you’re a bit flipping good on the instrument that you’re not above getting right back to basics and making sure that you really are playing the rhythm that the composer intended.

You’ve got to know the rules – and feel yourself butting up against them – before you can bend them. Same with time and rhythm. By playing strictly with the pulse and precisely in rhythm (which most of the time is not appropriate or musical or lovely or human in any way!), that’s when we know what the true sense of the pulse is. That’s when we know exactly what rhythm we should be playing. Only then, once you really understand that, can you then begin to intuit the pulse and the rhythm of a piece and get to work with some tasteful rubato.

So get out there, invest in a metronome and get counting!