Metronome … Yes or no?
Fifty years ago, this question would probably never have been broached. The familiar little wooden pyramid was an almost ubiquitous accessory to the piano and the beginning student was introduced to it very quickly. And equally quickly developed a distaste for it.
After the initial fascination of the little wind-up key mechanism wore off and after a few minutes observing the metal pendulum swinging rhythmically to and fro, the relentless clicking beat became distinctly annoying. Even an enthusiastic teacher’s demonstration of how the tiny metal weight pushed up or down on the pendulum provoked a corresponding change in tempo did little to meliorate the situation.
That metronome was irritating. Very irritating.
Along with virtually every student, I was subjected to the metronome when I began to learn piano. I played my scales in concert with it. I stumbled through Schmitt and Czerny with it. I counted out loud desperately as I quite obviously couldn’t maintain that inflexible and absolutely non-negotiable beat. Somewhere I would miss a note or hesitate and then the hateful time piece would ignore my struggles and continue clicking away.
I hated it.
And now years later, I realize that this particular instrument of torture needn’t be inflicted on any student with the mistaken idea that it will encourage smooth playing. It most definitely will NOT.
And the reason for this is very very simple. If you are learning an exercise, a scale or a piece of music, you will inevitably make errors. To correct or avoid them, you will break tempo and the metronome allows for NO breaks whatsoever. No matter how much you fumble, it will continue with its inexorable tick tick tick. And the frustration of learning the notes and fingerings is immediately increased to levels which many budding musicians find intolerable. To this day, I find it intolerable.
The historical facts surrounding the metronome and its original purpose make it quite clear that this device was never intended to be employed as a straitjacket or shackles for the beginning piano student. It was conceived for quite another … and very valid … purpose.
The metronome was invented in 1812 by Dietrich Nikolaus Winkel but the patent was somewhat deviously wrestled away from him by Johann Maezel three years later. Beethoven was among the first noted composers to use this device and was extremely enthusiastic about it, carefully noting his choice of tempi in many of his later compositions.
But Brahms loathed it. He commented ….
“I am of the opinion that metronome marks go for nothing. As far as I know, all composers have, as I, retracted their metronome marks in later years.”
This conflict of opinions rages on among musicians up to the present day. But the basic value of the metronome as an indication of the composer’s own wishes is indisputatable. Today in most scores, one can find the composer’s own specifications on the left hand side of the page.
But earlier composers such as Bach, Haydn or Mozart didn’t have access to the metronome and merely indicated the style or mood of their composition. In those cases ( and when the composer hasn’t indicated a metronome value) then the tempo will be printed in brackets, indicating that this choice has been made by the editor.
Here is a fragment of a Mozart composition with “suggested” metronome specs.
The metronome as an indication of tempo is invaluable for all serious musicians. As a basic method of initially coordinating choirs or musical groups, it also serves its purpose. And with contemporary recording techniques it can be profitably used to coordinate various sections of a piece of music for smooth splicing.
But as a method of controlling a student’s evenness of tempo and tone, it is more frequently an impediment than helpful. Because the student is still learning the notes and fingerings and cannot comfortably accomodate a ruthlessly rigid pulse as they struggle.
BUT ….. BUT ….. the student is playing all out of time. They can’t count the beats properly. They have to learn to play in time. They NEED the metronome …. don’t they?
Now here’s where we have to rethink what a “beat” is … and what exactly is “rhythm”. Well a beat is pretty simple. Tap Tap Tap Tap …. those are beats. Bang Bang Bang Bang …. those are beats too. So is Clank Clank Clank Clank ….. or anything else which is an evenly repeated sound. Your heart beats. A clock beats.
And the metronome is a classic example of a beat. An even repeated sound. The key word here is that the sound is EVEN. There is no stress. All the beats are equal and indistinguishable from each other. Tap Tap Tap Tap.
Rhythm is quite another thing. And it is the heartbeart of all music.
Rhythm is a pattern of stressed and unstressed beats. TAP tap tap … with an accent on the first note is a rhythm. TAP tap tap TAP tap tap …. 1 2 3 1 2 3. This is 3/4 time in music and is often called “waltz” time. An even more common rhythm is 4/4 time often appropriately called “common” or “march” time. This is a rhythm which includes strong, medium and weak beats. 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 ….
So we have …. Strong weak medium weak Strong weak medium weak for 4/4 time
It is the rhythm we must make our students aware of. And this is easily accomplished by making them count out loud as they play. ONE two three ONE two three. It takes very little repetition before that pattern of stresses is automatic and when it is, then virtually ALL students will naturally and smoothly access that natural rhythm which all living things possess by the mere physical facts of their respiration and heart beat,
And here is where something quite magical occurs. If a student COUNTS, it doesn’t matter if he stops to search for a note, misses a note or slows down. As long as he keeps counting. Sometimes he may be chanting .. ONE ..twooooooooo … three … (damn where’s the F#) four …” in what seems terribly uneven rhythm. But somehow, miraculously that STRESS will still survive as he searches for the right note and finger. ONE will always be more stressed than two or three … or four. And because he has control over the counting, all of the frustrations of keeping up with the metronome are vanquished.
In forty years of teaching, I’ve never had a student who didn’t pick up a sense of rhythm naturally and easily with this method.
Remember …. Music is NOT a steady beat … it has a pulse or rhythm with enormous variations in tempo … swelling and slowing sometimes and then an instant later, sparkling with speed and energy. Emotion is its heart and fuel. But that PULSE …. the RHYTHM is what holds it together. And that is the pattern of stresses … NOT the mere repeated beats. Counting out loud is the answer. And then your heart and breath will inform your hands and you will make music. Not just sounds.
Toss the metronome and begin to count. Out LOUD … your body already has rhythm, you were born with it. And it’s the best metronome in the world.