To met or not to met?

This is a question that I’ve recently asked myself. Is a metronome ALWAYS necessary? Or should we learn to be able to break from it time and again? I’m sure we’ve all been in this situation…we practice diligently with a metronome, and we can play something technically perfect, but then we move away from the click and all of the sudden it feels like we’ve taken two steps backward. This happens to me with cadenza-like (free) works in particular.

I’ve been working on the Stanley Hasty transcription of the Chromatic Fantasy by Bach off and on for over a year now. I’ve always wanted to play it, and it seemed like a good challenge for me that really addressed my weaknesses. For me, it’s an etude. It has really forced me to evaluate how I practice technical passages, especially with something as free as an unaccompanied work. For the past year-ish, I’ve been working with the metronome exclusively, line by line, like a good little clarinetist. Progress was…slow. Even though I had to take breaks from the piece (auditions, transfers, etc.), I felt I should be progressing on it faster. I would nail passages with the metronome, but then when I played it in context without the click it was a disaster. It was incredibly frustrating.

So I began to think, what is it about this piece that’s making my progress so slow? I had barely gotten through the first two pages in a year.  The piece is generally very free in style, so about a month ago, I just decided to eliminate the metronome from the equation. I began to practice the piece without it…and it started getting better and I felt more comfortable playing it. Whoa. Who knew?

First of all, in this “no-metronome experiment”, I have found that practicing without a metronome takes a lot of discipline. Instead of having a machine control my speed, I had to control it. It’s hard. Trust me…go and try it. I have to keep this mantra going in my head, “play it only as fast as you can play it perfectly” (I think the late Peter Hadcock said that? Or maybe it was Bonade? I’m not sure, haha). It really took a lot of focus. I found that concentrating on feeling my fingers play each note helped to keep my speed in check. It also helped me focus on what I was doing instead of letting my mind wander (which is another issue altogether, haha).

Without the met, I also had the freedom of being extremely musical, even at a slower tempo. Before, when I would practice a passage with the metronome, I would practice it without the musical phrasing in mind…I was just trying to wrap my head around the notes and the rhythms. But I’ve come to realize that this particular piece is not rhythm-based like most music, it is phrase-based. The rhythms that are written are mostly irrelevant. So practicing with the metronome is pretty much useless because the phrases don’t always line up with a steady beat! Without the metronome, I was free to practice the notes and the phrasing all in one shot. Hellooooooo efficiency!

As a result, when I would play through larger sections, I was more comfortable and it made much more sense musically. Don’t get me wrong, I’m surely not advocating ditching the metronome for everything…as musicians we need that steady pulse in most music. But we need to evaluate whether or not a piece (or passage) is phrase-based, or rhythm-based. I would say most of the things we work on is rhythm-based, and a metronome is essential in our preparation. But there are those works out there that are so free that they are based on phrasing, not rhythm. This is when we need to be brave take a step out of our little classical musician box and ditch that little machine for a bit. It is scary, but it works!

Happy practicing!

A little friend that I met on my trip to the big island yesterday.

2 replies on “To met or not to met?”

I never thought of it like this, but I think you’re spot-on. It probably also works well for the second movement of Stravinsky’s Three Pieces. I know I had a big WTF moment when I saw it the first time. I also didn’t realize that some of my problem was inefficient and robotic use of the metronome when I do have it going. Practicing slowly is good, but right now I need to keep the subdivisions going and really listen to make sure I’m with it — practicing slowly with only the big beat gives me too much wiggle room to fudge around. But that kind of practice is probably more suited to, say, Beethoven, than cadenza-like pieces. Guess I’ll have to try that.

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