The metronome is an essential tool for any musician. It can help you build your rhythmic confidence and keep a steady beat. You can use it to check your subdivisions or to solve a problem. I never practice without one handy.
Here are three ways you might not have thought of to use your metronome:
1. Click on the offbeats. We are used to hearing our metronome click on the beginning of every beat. Have you ever tried letting it click on just the half beat? If the piece calls for the quarter note at 80, set your metronome to 80. But instead of starting to play ON the click, let each click represent the eighth note in between the beats, so you hear the clicks on the “ands” instead of on the numbered beats. It’s an interesting technique for making your subdividing exact. Tip: to help keep your concentration, be sure to count while you play.
2. Practice two against three. Most electronic metronomes will allow you to set a subdivision of the beat. Start by setting your metronome to your desired tempo, and alternately tap 2 and 3 subdivisions to each beat. You can think of these as two eighth notes and three triplet notes to each quarter note beat. Next, have your metronome click the eighth note subdivisions while you count and tap the triplets, lining up your counting and the metronome beat. Then try switching and have your metronome pulse the triplets, while you tap the eighths. When you’re ready, try playing one rhythm on the harp while your metronome clicks the other. Tip: this is great preparation for Debussy’s “First Arabesque.”
3. Check your inner pulse. This technique weans you away from the metronome to see how steady you can stay over time. Set your metronome to click every other beat or even every third or fourth beat if your metronome goes low enough. (Many metronomes have 40 as the lowest beat, but some are capable of slower speeds.) For instance, if you’re playing a piece in 3/4 with the quarter note pulse at 120, try setting your metronome at 40, so it clicks only once per measure. You will find out quickly if you are keeping each measure steady. The first movement of the Handel Concerto at 80 to the quarter is an entirely different practice experience if your metronome is set to 40.
The R&B group Earth, Wind & Fire used a monster version of the above technique on their tours to help keep their sense of rhythm as a group. The band has always been distinguished by their high musical standard and fine sense of ensemble, and this is one way they practiced. Sitting apart from each other on an airplane, one of them would count off a tempo. Then silently and without visual cues, each group member would count the beats and clap on the 100th beat. Obviously, their goal was to clap at the same time. That’s precision!