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Recording Mythology, Pt. 2 / Practice and the Lowly Metronome

In my second installation, I’m going to discuss a few misconceptions that seems terribly widespread, and first is the notion that somehow or the other learning to use a metronome is a superfluous or otherwise useless activity.

In this case, the common assumption is that either 1) one already possesses excellent time or that 2) no one else does. This “theory of denial” seems to work fine until it is shattered within two minutes of attempting to record to a click track for the first time. A friend who was accoustomed to playing in ‘free form’, when attempting to record to a click, once commented that he thought that the click track itself was first slowing down and then speeding up. This would’ve really been funny if it wasn’t such a serious problem. I once had a bass player try to cover up his inability by blaming the problem on tape drift. That might have sounded clever, until it was pointed out that the notes he was recording weren’t fluctuating in pitch.

It doesn’t matter if you play rock or classical music, time is an integral part of music, as important as the silence between the notes. The bottom line here is simple: get a metronome and practice to it until you want to throw it out the window. Do this every other day for one hour until you die. Metronomes become monotonous quickly and therefore test ones’ patience to the extreme. You have been warned.

It has been my experience that the old analogue wooden type, which emit a more calming ‘tick-tock’ing sound, are easier on the nerves than the irritating ‘dink-dink-dink’ sound of their more modern counterparts. The analogue type also require a bit more concentration, which is a good thing in Practice Mode, as one soon sees when attempting to practice in 3/4 time. The ‘tick’ will continually move from the upbeat to the downbeat, as the metronome, by means of physics, remains in 2/4. This conditions the musician to use the metronome as a reference to time, rather than the practitioner allowing it to lead him or her.

Most times, the beginner, being overzealous in his attempt to learn to play ‘fast’, is tempted to start out with the metronome set at too rapid a pace resulting in his or her having to struggle to keep up. This approach will, in fact, do more harm than good; as this approach reinforces the bad habit of sloppy execution and technique. The idea is to allow the metronome to be the master while the musician, respecting discipline, restricts himself to role of student. In this respect, one must first learn to play slowly before one learns to play fast. VERY slowly. It has been noted by more than a few music instructors that playing slowly is more difficult than playing fast, and I cannot agree more. There is no advantage to speed in the beginning, and as the Chinese proverb correctly indicates: The thousand mile journey begins at home.

Andreas Segovia, when asked why he played some passages so fast in his rendition of known compositions, replied, “because I can.” Thre is a valuable lesson to be learned in the maestro’s words.

To begin with, slow the metronome down in tempo until you reach a speed that, when playing any given scale, it becomes uncomfortable to play at and make a note of this tempo. This is where you will want to begin for slow practice. This is your slow cadence limit. Next, increase the speed until you can no longer execute any given scale pattern cleanly. This is your fast cadence limit. You will want to practice at both speeds until these tempos become effortless before attempting either slower or faster tempos.

You will want to practice ascending as well as descending scales. You will especially want to work on the harder ones, rather than avoiding them. Only then do you want to consider moving the pendulum beyond these bounds, and then, by only a click or two. All of this is going to be very difficult and trying work. You will not be ready to move on after only one or two sessions. Each tempo will most probably take at least a couple of weeks to master, and you’ll want to revisit them frequently. As well as every conceivable tempo in between. This is the only way to uncover every weakness. If you cannot cultivate the patience to practice in this manner, you may want to reconsider pursuing the craft.

Johnny Nowhere is an ‘older but wiser’ songwriter/composer who wishes that he’d known thirty years ago everything that he knows now.



About Johnny Nowhere

Johnny Nowhere is a songwriter/composer and owner of Hell Paving Company, music publisher. Johnny doesn't really exist outside of the music industry and Facebook. He is simply a figment of my imagination.

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