My metronome is, hands down, the most important musical tool I own. It’s been in my flute bag since high school and has logged countless hours. When it comes to difficult technique, my little Seiko is the tool I need to learn the notes.
When I was in school I spent hours in the practice room. These days, I’m lucky to carve out a half hour once or twice a week. Things like earning a living and spending time with my family rightfully claim most of my time. So I have to make the most of the 30 to 60 minutes a week I can spare between band rehearsals to learn my parts. My metronome helps me pump up the productivity of my practice time so that I can come to rehearsal ready to work on the finer points of music making.
So, where do you begin when you have a difficult piece of music to learn? It’s technically challenging and you can’t seem to get any traction. Practicing just isn’t getting you anywhere.
I like to start by identifying the trouble spots. Playing through a piece with the metronome makes the rough patches stand out. A trouble spot may be just a few notes or it may be several lines long. If your trouble spots are too long, you may want to break them up into smaller bits. Once you’ve identified the parts that need practice, choose one and get to work on it.
Start at a speed where you can comfortably play the passage without any mistakes. Try it at half of performance speed, but don’t be afraid to take it below that level if necessary. If you find yourself below 60 beats per minute you may want to double the speed and subdivide the beat. For example, click eighth notes at 120 rather than quarter notes at 60.
As you play through the passage slowly, take note of any difficult fingerings. Some awkward finger manipulations may become impossible at full speed. Now is the time to nail down alternate fingerings. Practicing them right from the start will train your brain so that the fingerings become second nature as the tempo speeds up.
Once you’re able to play the selection solidly at the base tempo, dial the speed up one notch and try again. Continue slowly increasing the speed until you get to the point where you start missing notes or the rhythm get’s shaky. At this point you may want to set the piece aside for the day and work on something else. This type of practice can be intense and mentally tiring, so don’t overdo it. The next time you practice, start from your base tempo and do it all again. You’ll find that each practice session will bring you a little closer to your goal. You may not be up to speed by the time your next band rehearsal rolls around, but you’ll be surprised at how many more notes you catch when you rehearse the piece at full tempo.
There are three basic types of metronomes available, the pendulum type, the dial type and the digital type. They all perform the basic function of keeping time, so which you choose is a matter of personal preference, and how much money you’re willing to spend.
Pendulum models feature a wind up mechanism and a weighted pendulum. No need for batteries. This type is more traditional having been around before electronic versions became available. Models with wooden cases look quite elegant sitting on your piano or book shelf. They are a great choice if you’re looking for something both decorative and functional. They do, however, require frequent winding,are not as portable as electronic models and the beat may become uneven over time. Smaller versions are available, but they lack the beauty of the larger wooden models. Pendulum models are more costly than their electronic counterparts.
Dial models feature a dial to adjust the tempo. Each successive notch on the dial increases the tempo by two or more beats per minute. These models are compact and easy to use. They fit in a pocket and are small enough to sit on a music stand. Tempo is indicated by a click and/or a flashing light. Dial units will sound A 440 for tuning purposes. Some models will also sound B♭ 446. Dial metronomes are inexpensive and portable making them a great choice for most musicians. I’ve owned mine for over thirty years and it’s still going strong.
Digital models have a digital readout rather than a dial. Tempo is changed by using up and down arrow buttons. Digital units tend to have a few more features than the dial type. For instance you can set the speed to any whole number of beats per minute as opposed to being limited to the preset tempos of the dial. Digital models also have a mode that will allow you to choose a time signature. The tone for the downbeat will be different from the tone for the intermediate beats. Some manufacturers offer a model that combines a metronome with a tuner. This is a great and economical way to go since a tuner is another tool that should be in every flute bag. Like the dial version, digital models are compact and affordable. Is the added functionality necessary? No, but many flutists enjoy making use of them. Like their dial counterparts, digital models are inexpensive and portable, another great choice.
Want to go virtual? There are a number of free online models available. Check out www.metronomeonline.com. Or better yet, download a free or inexpensive app to your iPhone. When’s the last time you left home without your phone? You’ll never be without your metronome again!
A metronome is the most important musical tool you will ever own. Used effectively, it will increase the efficiency of your practice time and raise your technique to a new level.
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