It occurs to me that I’m occasionally guilty of telling students they need to use a metronome without having taught them how to use one. It’s the musical equivalent of handing someone a chainsaw and expecting them to cut down a tree.
Pretend for a moment that you’ve never used a chainsaw. Now imagine that someone walks up to you, places one in your hands, points at a tree and says “GO FOR IT!”
Musicians usually think of metronomes as hammers. It’s obvious how to use a hammer: you hold the handle and whack nails with it. To us, it’s obvious how to use a metronome: turn it on and play with the beeps. But for the average 8-year-old, a metronome is more like a chainsaw than a hammer – something that makes a lot of noise and can get you into a lot of trouble if you don’t use it correctly.
So I started thinking about how best to introduce students to metronomes, and I’ve come up with a few things that might help:
1) Start with clapping. Have your students clap along with the beat at first, experimenting with how the metronome can go faster or slower. Let them feel what it’s like to follow it. You can use a quarter note pulse or simple rhythm patterns.
2) Have your students play whole note chords (or open fifths) with the metronome – let them hear how a metronome counts off 4 beats for them while they play. Then, have them play dotted half notes, then halves, then quarters. Then try eighth notes. The idea is to figure out what it feels like to play with a metronome.
3) Always vary the tempo. Get your students used to the idea that tempo is flexible. Quarter notes can be slow or fast.
Once a student is accustomed to these experiences, then the metronome can be safely applied to the repertoire they’re studying. At first, use the metronome only with pieces that are already near a performance level. If the student is still having difficulty with fingering, rhythm, and keeping a steady beat, then adding the metronome isn’t going to help matters, it’s just going to give them something else to worry about.
And finally, I think much of this also applies to counting aloud. Counting aloud is a tool, not a magic wand. You have to learn how to use it before it becomes useful. For students who have trouble counting aloud while they play, a similar set of experiences may prove helpful:
1) Have them count and clap very simple rhythms they’re already familiar with.
2) Have them count while you play so they can get used to the sound and feel of it.
3) Count with them while you play, giving them some reassurance as to how it works.
4) Have them count along with pieces they already know very well. As I mentioned before, trying to count something that hasn’t been mastered yet only adds to the confusion.And finally, I mention all of this because I feel counting aloud and metronome use are extremely useful and valuable skills to have. Too often, students are reluctant to do either, and it’s almost always because they don’t know how. For some students, counting aloud and metronomes are like hammers – their use is obvious. For most, though, it’s a tool that you need to learn how to use; a skill that, like any other, has to be developed before it becomes useful.
By Dr Jason Sifford, on February 25th, 2010
Tim Topham is the founder and director of TopMusic. Tim hosts the popular TopCast show, blogs regularly at topmusic.co and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as pedagogy, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, California Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.