Teaching Rhythmic Skills with the Metronome
Notes by Brent Hugh
These notes are part of our Piano Pedagogy curriculum.
Assistant Professor of Piano
Missouri Western State College Department of Music
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Why use metronome?
Helps students feel the "steady beat"--the first rhythmic concept young students must learn
Learn to synchronize with an outside rhythmic pulse (preparation for ensemble work, accompanying)
Shows rhythmic errors clearly--can help develop precise rhythmic playing
Can help in "step-by-step" practicing to reach a certain tempo
Can help to prevent students from playing too fast
Why not use metronome?
No one in real life plays like a metronome--music must breathe.
Overuse of metronome can prevent you from finding your own, internal, natural, flexible rhythm.
Experience and many scientific studies clearly demonstrate that the rhythmic beat in music, as produced and perceived by both trained musicians and laypersons, is substantially different from a metronomic beat. Musical time is different from "clock" time (=metronome time) on both the large and the small scale.
How to introduce the metronome?
Playing with metronome and the associated rhythmic skills (keeping a steady beat; synchronizing with an outside beat) are skills that can be learned and taught. You must teach these skills, though--just telling a student to "practice this piece with the metronome" usually doesn't work.
- Use metronome as "steady beat" as you & student clap/tap/chant/sing rhythms. For example, use metronome as you and/or the student:
- Chant words of student's pieces
- Simply count out loud in different meters and at different tempos ("1 2 3 1 2 3 . . ." or "1 2 1 2 1 2 . . ."). This is very difficult for some beginning students.
- Clap rhythm from student's piece
- Clap & count (or tap & count if hands have independent rhythm) rhythm from student's piece
- Play games involving metronome (the metronome is like a timer that you can speed up as the student becomes more skilled):
- Note Game: Teacher chants, "C 2 3 Play; F 2 3 Play; A 2 3 Play" etc., in time with metronome. Student must play the given note EXACTLY on the beat when you say "Play".
- Reverse Note Game: Start metronome; play a note. Student must chant name of note in time with metronome as long as teacher plays that note, i.e. "C C C C D D E E F F F F A A B B C".
- Flashcards: Line up several note flashcards; start metronome. Count "1-2-3-4". Student must play each note flashcard in order, allowing exactly four counts for each note. Over several lessons, increase speed and/or reduce number of counts ("1-2-3" then "1-2" then just "1"). Goal: At least one card per second.
- Reverse Flashcards: Line up several flashcards. Start metronome. Count "1-2-3-4". Teacher names a note on "1", student must point to correct answer exactly on "4". Variation: Teacher plays the note instead of naming it.
You can, of course, invent dozens of games along these lines. They make learning basic skills more fun. At the same time, the student is learning to keep a steady beat and to synchronize motions and actions with an outside beat.
Playing pieces with metronome
Students who don't already have the skills necessary to play with metronome will give up in frustration if you suddenly ask them to play a whole piece with metronome. Take a step-by-step approach.
- Have students play simple technical exercises with metronome--5-finger patterns, (hand-over-hand) arpeggios, chord progressions. Perhaps students will learn the exercises first without metronome, then on the second go-round, play them with metronome at a specified tempo. These exercises are short are relatively simple; the student is playing from memory, not reading music. This makes adding metronome relatively simple.
- Assign not an entire piece, but a small section (perhaps 1 or 2 measures) to be practiced with metronome. Small sections can be synchronized with metronome far more easily then long sections.
- First week (in addition to the normal ways you ask the student to practice a new piece) ask the student to practice daily clapping and counting (or tapping and counting) with metronome. Second week, week, ask the student to practice the same piece by playing and counting with metronome.
- Periodically assign a piece the student has already learned and can already play at a steady tempo as a "metronome piece". The student practices this piece an "extra" week with metronome at a specified tempo.
- Teach students to count off 2 measures with the metronome before playing, whenever they play with metronome. Otherwise, students will just start and "hope for the best".
Practical teaching considerations
Metronomes are inexpensive; students should own one. Make ownership of a metronome a point in your studio policies. Emphasize with parents at interview (before first lesson) the need to have a metronome before the student comes to the first lesson.
- Use metronome as a regular part of your teaching--if not at every lesson, then at least periodically. Students won't know what to do with the metronome unless you show them.
- Make definite, specific assignments for using metronome:
- Write down the metronome assignment, including exact tempo(s).
- Make sure the tempos are practical for that particular student playing that particular piece (don't guess--have the student try it at that tempo).
- Beginning students usually do best with tempos in the range 80-120.
- Make sure to follow up the next week--have students play for you the assignment you gave them, exactly as you specified it.
- Remember that playing with metronome per se is not our goal. Rather, our goal is for the student to learn certain rhythmic skills. The metronome can be a helpful aid in learning some of them.