However, it’s easy for the metronome to become your worst enemy.
The trick is in, first, appreciating what the metronome can help you do on your instrument while, second, knowing exactly how to use the metronome for maximum impact in your playing.
Let’s take a look at both of these key points in turn.
How a Metronome Will Help You Play Better
One mistake a lot of musicians make is trying to “play” with the rhythm of a song without first completely mastering their ability to play steadily right in time.
If you work with a metronome regularly as part of your practice process, you will develop incredible time. Your feel for the beat will eventually become so solid you will hardly ever waver.
The usual issue of speeding up will be a thing of your playing past–and you won’t have to stay on top of yourself to make sure you’re on the beat. You will develop a natural, almost DNA-level connection to the rhythm of any piece you’re playing.
This is the gift bestowed upon you by the metronome if you’ll work with it consistently and patiently.
Additionally, playing with a metronome will keep you musically honest. You won’t be able to get away with “fudging” the rhythm of more difficult musical passages.
The metronome will provide you with a clear context in which you can no with 100% certainty whether you are playing correctly or not. Every mistake you make will be glaringly apparent.
In this way, the metronome will make an honest musician out of you. You’ll develop a sense of your strengths and weaknesses musically, and you’ll always know exactly how you can work to best take advantage of your particular strengths while bolstering your weaknesses.
I can’t state this enough times: the metronome is your best friend.
The Nuts and Bolts of How to Use a Metronome
Once you’re clear about how helpful the metronome can be for your accelerated musical development, practicing with a metronome can be incredibly fun.
For starters, you want to take advantage of the metronome’s slower speeds to help you slow down and notice the details of everything you’re learning on your instrument.
I’ve benefited heavily from the Basic Practice Approach outlined by Jamie Andreas in her book The Principles of Correct Practice for the Guitar. I definitely recommend checking that book out if you are interested in learning more about how to structure your work with the metronome.
Now, when I refer to “slower speeds,” let’s define what that means.
Set your metronome to 50 beats per minute.
Now, take out the piece of music you’re currently working on. The piece that is still providing you with a solid challenge.
Try playing it at 50 beats per minute while keeping the whole thing in rhythm. Go ahead, and I’ll wait here.
(Did you really try it? Reading this without actually trying stuff out with the metronome will only help you so much…)
So how was that for you? If that speed is still too fast, then I want you to halve the speed. But I don’t want you to change the metronome from 50 beats per minute.
Instead, just play the same piece you just tried to play, but give yourself two clicks for every quarter note instead of one click.
Try this and then check back in with me.
If you actually tried doing this, you’ll discover an important principle for working with the metronome, which is: You can leave the metronome clicking at any given speed, and you can adjust your playing to it to make it slower.
Everything is relative when it comes to working with a metronome, so keep that in mind whenever you’re working with a metronome in your musical practice.
Slow Down to Speed Up
Music isn’t a race.
As you start out working with a metronome, the best thing you can possibly do for your musical development is to slow waaaay down and work the details of whatever you’re learning to play.
Pick a chunk of the piece of music you’re learning, set the metronome to a speed that’s slow enough so that you can play through even the hardest moment in the entire section you’re practicing.
Then, play through with the metronome and make sure you stay in rhythm relative to the metronome.
As that speed becomes comfortable, try raising the speed of the metronome enough to present a challenge but not enough to cause you to start making major mistakes.
Don’t practice mistakes. Keep the metronome well within your comfort range as you learn and master the section of music.
Once you have the section totally solid, you can start to bounce back and forth from your top speed to a much slower speed by using the principle we already looked at of halving your speed relative to the click of the metronome.
Those are two different methods for working with the metronome, and you’ll want to use both with every challenging piece of music you try to learn.