When it comes to practicing your chosen instrument, the metronome is a powerful tool. As a teacher, I’ve found that having my students play to a metronome not only improves their timing, rhythm, speed etc. but also, by having to concentrate on a pulse, students are more willing to play something simple and repetitive for much longer periods, which improves their technique, builds strength and stamina etc.
A traditional approach to using a metronome is to set it at a specific tempo, and to then sound a note or beat on every pulse as accurately as possible. When you think about what a musician is actually doing in this case, you realise that in order to land on the next beat, the musician needs to be able to anticipate when that beat will happen.
I’ve sometimes heard people say they’ve “got no rhythm”, but I believe it’s more to do with this idea of anticipation and I have had great success with students who struggle with timing and rhythm with the exercise I am going to recommend.
First, set the metronome to 50bpm. Here, we are counting each beat as a crotchet/quarter note: 1, 2, 3, 4.
Now, it is much more difficult to hit right on the pulse at a slower tempo than at a faster one. The reason for this? Because we have fewer REFERENCE POINTS. There is a long gap between each pulse, and this leads to more “variance”.
Next, set the metronome to 100bpm. Don’t worry, we’re not doubling the SPEED of the count – that is to say, we are not playing FASTER – we’re just doubling our reference points. This time, we are counting the pulses as quavers/eighth notes: *1, and* *2, and* *3, and* *4, and*. You will find that the tempo you count the numbers at is the same tempo you counted them at 50bpm, but now we have an extra measure exactly half way between each number. With this extra measure, it becomes much easier to anticipate when the numbered pulse (1, 2, 3 etc.) is going to happen.
We can take this a step further. By increasing the tempo to 200bpm, we are now counting in semi-quavers/16th notes, like so: *1, E, and, a* *2, E, and, a* *3, E, and, a* etc. Again, the numbers are still happening at the same tempo as 50bpm, but we now have even more reference points.
When you have got the hang of counting in this way, set the metronome back to 50bpm. This time, try counting these extra measures yourself in-between the pulse of the metronome.
First, count in crotchets: 1, 2, 3, 4
Next, in quavers: *1, and* *2, and* *3, and* *4, and*
Then, count in semi-quavers: *1, E, and, a* *2, E, and, a*
Go up and down through these different counts with the metronome on 50bpm until you get the hang of it. Whether you’re counting in crotchets, quavers or semi-quavers, the trick is to keep the space between each count the same. If you manage to do this, then you should find it much easier to land the note or beat you want to play right on the pulse. Be sure to practice this. After a while, you’ll develop an internal rhythm based not only on the pulse of a tempo, but also on the space between it.