Friday, July 12, 2013

You and your metronome

Much of what I can say about using a metronome is standard wisdom for those who practice music. As I already discussed, the field of "early music" tends to eschew these modern inventions. In any event, knowing where the absolute beat should lie is a very useful piece of information.

For the memorizing musician, the metronome takes on a new significance. Because we are working without score and, sometimes in performance, under fear of memory lapse, it's really good to know the optimal tempo for a piece. And, by optimal, I don't mean "fastest." This is to say that, when one works from memory, it can be easy to become too concerned with the notes or the maintenance of memory to give much thought to tempo. Of course, this scenario would indicate that one wasn't really listening to what one was doing--but that's another matter entirely.  Suffice it to say that it's a good idea to know how fast or how slow a piece should go. This is your own interpretive decision, unless the composer has left specific indications.


I have a hunch (based on my own past habits) that musicians who don't play from memory don't do a lot of metronome work. As I feel that working from memory forces all good habits, I'm aware that not working from memory allows for apathy. In my own case, I didn't use a metronome for years. When I started working with living composers, knowing their beat became a necessity; when I started working from memory, knowing my beat became even more imperative.

When I resumed my memory work, I didn't start working with a metronome right away. I remember one concert when I arrived to do my warmup, only to realize that just about all of my fast tempi were the same. That's a disconcerting thing to consider just before a recital! My only explanation is that, in my memorization work, I had settled into a comfortable pace with tempi and had not really thought much about it until I was on the spot. I would like to suggest that, had I not been playing that recital from memory, I might never have noticed it at all. Memory forces a certain level of self-examination.

My own personal anecdotes aside, there are some very specific ways in which metronome work can help your memorization practice.

  1. Slow metronome work (from memory, of course) helps to avoid any reliance on tactile memory.
  2. Slow metronome work helps to avoid sentimental practice.  It's easy to get caught up in the emotions of our music. By forcing a slow tempo, we can focus just on making sure that we know the notes.
  3. Slow metronome work makes sure that a piece is rock-solid. Every note goes where it should metrically, and that insures that every note is properly memorized.
As you can see, I don't have much use for non-slow metronome work, except when I'm trying to find the optimal tempo for a piece. From the standpoint of learning memorization, a slow metronome is the best tool.

I haven't written too much yet about working away from the instrument, but one of my favorite techniques is to work with a slow metronome. The metronome is very good at keeping my mind from wandering while I'm mentally working my way through a score. It keeps me from mentally rushing through my well-memorized passages, and, just as when playing, it makes sure that every note is sitting in the correct metric place.

Do you use a metronome to help your memorization practice? Or do you have some metronome techniques for any type of practice, memorized or otherwise? Post your thoughts here!