Nearly every music student has been told by their teacher to “Practice with a metronome.” Metronome practice is arguably the most effective way to improve one’s skills and knowing how to incorporate your metronome into your practice effectively will help you improve your rhythmic and technical skills in the fastest and most efficient way possible.
Below is a list of some helpful practice techniques and tips to ensure that you are getting the most out of your metronome practice!
1) SLOW practice is the key to FAST playing:
The most obvious use of a metronome is to help us slow down difficult passages while keeping the pace consistent. This approach enables us to work through challenging passages without making any mistakes, gradually increasing the speed as we become more familiar with it.
One effective practice technique is to isolate a challenging passage from your repertoire and identify the shortest note value (eighth, sixteenth, thirty-second, etc…) in the passage. Once you have identified the shortest note value, set your metronome to 60 bpm and practice through the passage with the shortest note value equal to 60 bpm.
For example, if the shortest note value is a sixteenth note then practice the passage so that every sixteenth note receives one beat, every eighth note receives two beats, every quarter note receives four beats, etc… If the shortest note value is an eighth note, then practice through the passage so that every eighth note receives one beat, every quarter note receives two beats, etc…
After you have played through the passage without any mistakes and without any tension in your playing, increase the metronome speed by five clicks and repeat the process.
2) Make it SWING: Use dotted rhythms to hep improve your timing:
Practicing difficult passages using dotted or swing rhythms is an incredibly effective way to work out any rhythmic inconsistencies and isolate technical difficulties. Dotted rhythms such as a dotted eighth followed by a sixteenth note, or a dotted sixteenth followed by a thirty-second note allow us to alternate playing long and short notes, giving us more time to anticipate our next note in difficult passages. This technique works particularly well for long scalar passages and arpeggios which have small note values.
First you will need to isolate a difficult passage and again identify the shortest note value in the passage (eighth, sixteenth, etc…). Choosing a passage with many notes of the same value works best with this technique. Once you have identified the shortest note value, set your metronome to 72 bpm. Now begin by playing through the passage, however, you will alternate between giving notes three beats and one beat.
For example, the first note of the passage will receive three beats while the second note will receive one beat. The third note of the passage will receive three beats while the fourth will receive one beat. Continue alternating in this fashion as you practice through the entire passage.
After you can play through the whole passage this way without any mistakes, move your metronome up five clicks and repeat the process. As you become more advanced, you can slow the tempo of your metronome while still increasing the speed of your passage. Here is how:
When you have pushed your metronome to its max bpm, you can re-set your metronome back to 60 bpm, and again play through the passage with the same rhythmic feel, however, this time you will alternate between giving each note one and a half beats, and half of a beat. For example, the first note will receive 1.5 beats (play one the downbeat of “1”) and the second note will receive .5 beats (play on the “and” of the second beat). The third note will receive 1.5 beats (played on the downbeat of “3”) and the fourth note will receive .5 beats (played on the “and” of the fourth beat).
Again, after you can play through the whole passage this way without any mistakes, move your metronome up five clicks and repeat the process.
3) Reverse your DOTTED rhythms:
This technique is easy to remember if you have read through technique number two above. The idea here is that you will practice a long passage by alternating between short notes and long notes. The difference here is that every note that received THREE beats before will now receive only ONE beat, and every note that previously received ONE beat will now receive THREE beats.
You are effectively changing the long notes in technique number 2 to short notes, and the short notes in technique number 2 to long notes. Practicing your dotted rhythms this way will isolate any technical and rhythmic difficulties that weren’t addressed by practicing technique number two and will ensure smooth and effective playing at full speed.
4) Phasing your phrasing:
This last technique is an advanced metronome technique that can be used to practice difficult passages as well as scales. For this technique, you will need to first isolate a challenging scale or passage to practice, preferably one that begins on a downbeat (a numbered beat such as “1, 2, 3, 4, etc…).
Begin by setting your metronome to 40 bpm. Play through the passage slowly at 40 bpm without making any mistakes. When you feel comfortable with the passage at this speed, we will use a technique called phasing to shift the timing of the notes in the passage as you practice them.
When you can comfortably play through the passage at 40 bpm beginning on the downbeat, begin the passage again, however, this time start the FIRST note of the passage one sixteenth note later than written in the score. That means that you will now practice the entire passage starting on the “e” of beat one (ex. 1 – e – & – a – 2 – e – & – a – etc…). When you can comfortably play through the passage this way begin again, but this time shift the first note of the passage two sixteenth notes later than written in the score. That means that you will now practice the entire passage starting on the “&” of beat one (ex. 1 – e- & – a – etc…). Finally, when you can comfortably play through the passage this way begin once more, but this time shift the first note of the passage three sixteenth notes later than written in the score. That means that you will now practice the entire passage starting on the “a” of beat one (ex. 1 – e – & – a – etc…).
If you can complete all four of these permutations, you will have practiced all the different rhythmic variations phasing can offer and will not only have a better technical grasp on the passage but a better musical understanding of where your big beats fall in relation to the notes.
These techniques may sound challenging, but by practicing through them slowly and incorporating them into your daily routine you will find yourself improving by leaps and bounds! As I always tell my students: practicing a difficult passage for ten minutes with a metronome is better than practicing it for one hour without a metronome!
Best of luck and happy practicing!