Effective metronome practice

Metronome anxiety

I grew up hating the metronome. The target of my disaffection was an old wooden Seth Thomas metronome that sat atop the upright piano in my parents’ house.

My teachers would urge me to solve problems with tempo, evenness, and velocity with slow metronome-guided practice. I’d give it a few tries and abandon it. During lessons, if the metronome started, I’d seize-up with anxiety. I suspect that metronome axiety is more common than teachers appreciate. A question in a piano practice forum captures the feeling precisely:

“Please advise on the metronome usage. I hate the thing! With the first sound of it I can feel my back and neck muscles tense up. How is one able to listen for the beat, concentrate on the notes, and technique for playing them, all at the same time.” [1]

I think there is a sense of being left behind when the metronome starts. If a passage is difficult, perhaps the fingering will get bungled and the metronome will keep going as if taunting the musician. Impatience is also a factor. We often don’t want to admit that achieving velocity and even execution is difficult and that it takes time. The metronome reveals that plainly to us. Whatever the cause, anxiety about the metronome is probably common. And sadly, unless the player overcomes it, he is robbed of an important tool for improving technique. When I began to play more chamber music 20 years ago, I found that I couldn’t mesh complex parts effectively without learning to play with more refined, even technique. Little by little I learned to live with the metronome and use it more effectively.

Choice of metronome

Personally, I regard the drum machine type metronomes useless for serious practice. Complex, accented rhythms are not what we need for practice. I can’t use the old pyramidal Maelzel metronomes because I constantly suspect their evenness. After several metronomes, I’ve finally found a model that I actually enjoy using, the Intelli IMT301. It’s very intuitive; and there’s no wasted functionality. (I’m not planning on trying to practice against a Bossa Nova rhythm.) This metronome is probably intended for string players; and we also use it for that too. Mostly I like it because it’s loud. I have no difficulty hearing it even when we use it in ensemble rehearsals. One minor critique is that the speaker is on the back. If you place the metronome horizontally on a surface or directly against a music stand, the sound is muffled. At the piano, I place it on the music desk upright but reclined at a slightly more acute angle than the stand so that the speaker isn’t occluded. When practicing the violin, I have it velcro’d to the top of the stand, again, so that the speaker isn’t obstructed.

I don’t like smartphone-based metronomes. None of the ones that I’ve tried have enough volume. Some have obvious issues with user experience. For example, there’s a Steinway metronome app that uses a faux analog rotary dial control to change the tempo setting. Because of the way people hold cell phones, the right thumb is used to move the control. But the thumb reaching across the phone from left to right obscures the tempo reading in the center of the dial.

Metronome practice for velocity

In the first movement of the Beethoven Piano Trio Op. 1 No. 3, there is a moderately difficult fast sixteenth note run that appears three times in two different forms:

beethoven trio

Just ignore the fingering. Even with the best fingering, at the tempo marking “Allegro con brio”, it’s fast. It also doesn’t conform to any particular known scale. It just weaves around the violin and cello parts in an agitated way. There are several places in these passages, where the second finger has to be passed over the thumb with an interval of a third. My target is about 140 to a quarter note; so how should I begin to attack this passage to achieve the desired performance tempo?

First, the choice of fingering has to be worked out before reaching for the metronome. Starting to practice with the metronome before all of the fingering choices have been evaluated will be frustrating and will lead to more metronome anxiety. At a minimum, it’s ineffective. Take time to slowly develop the fingering and write it into the score. Consider the fingering in the context of what comes before and after the passage in question. At this point, the metronome isn’t helpful; this phase is about discovery - finding what fingering works.

After you’ve found the right fingering[2], then you are ready for slow practice. In this case, since my target is 140 to the quarter note, I would start at under 70. If you can play the passage perfectly in a relaxed way with all of the decided-on fingerings, then you can advance the metronome by 5 beats per minute. I keep repeating this process, increasing the tempo at 5 bpm increments. I stop increasing when I feel the first sign of tension in the hand, wrist, or forearm. This is the point where you should dial the metronome back by 10 bpm.

Beginning from 10 bpm below the point where tension first developed, you can slowly increase the tempo by 2-4 beats per minute. You may also begin to experience diminishing returns due to fatigue. If you begin to sense fatigue, it’s best to stop and move on to a less demanding passage or a passage with different technical requirements.

I keep track of how the tempi are progressing so that I can begin each practice session with the right tempo. At the next session, I may start a little faster than 70 bpm and advance in 10 bpm up to the point where tension developed in the last session. From that point on, I will advance more slowly to the tension point, then back off again. In no case do I attempt to push the tempo beyond the point where I can play the passage accurately or the point where muscular tension develops. By practicing intentionally in this way, I can make no wasted effort in attempting to get the passage up to performance tempo and I reduce the likelihood that I’ll injure myself.

Metronome practice for evenness

Of course velocity is not the only concern. We want to be able to play passages at the right tempo and without any unmarked accents. For piano, we’re concerned about dynamic and agogic[3] accents. In other instruments, tonic accents have to be considered. In any case, these accents, if unmarked and unintended impeded the evenness of a passage at whatever tempo the performer can play.

The metronome, of course, can help with this goal also. In an effort to remove unwanted accents, I may start with an even lower metronome mark and progress more slowly, drawing my focus on making smooth transitions, especially finger crossings. With the metronome, we have to be careful though, not to actually introduce a dynamic accent on the beat in an effort to stay synchronized with it. I fight this constantly.

Other metronome tips

  • I like to turn on the feature that accentuates the first beat of each measure. For some reason I feel less of the metronome anxiety when a hear a clear downbeat.
  • There’s a risk of over-practicing while inching up the tempo. Working for too long with the metronome can lead you to practice a spot excessively. I’ve found the clue there is in the diminishing returns from elevating the tempo and in the feeling of tension. I make a commitment with myself to stop at that point.
  • Scales are a good way to gain experience with the metronome.

  1. Tech 5. “metronome hatred” Piano World Forums 27 July, 2012 Link

  2. By “right fingering” I mean the fingering that works for you.

  3. Agogic accents are those that a temporal - delays in onset or offset of a note, for example.