Sunday, September 24, 2006


It just keeps on ticking

It's only been a week and a half, but it feels like playing with a metronome is actually helping. It's not like it should be a surprise. What I'm struggling to understand, though, is why it took me so long to accept that I needed it.

For the past several months, I've sort of assumed that I could just power my way through it by playing through each piece over and over until the timing and rhythm problems somehow worked themselves out. Lately, though I had begun to sense that my teacher was getting a little exasperated that I still couldn't hold those dotted quarter notes in Happy Farmer long enough; or even the dotted halves in Rigadoon. Finally, she said quite directly (I recorded it with "Audacity") that at this stage, my intonation was actually pretty good, and that my second position shift was also pretty good, but that it was time that I started paying more attention to my bowing. The bow draws the sound out of the strings, it controls the tempo and rhythm, and dynamics; it handles string crossings, and the slurring, staccatos, spicattos, and tenutos. As she put it, "the right hand does all the work". I could only get so far focusing on my left hand, before I would eventually stall out.

Since my next lesson wasn't going to be for four weeks, I finally accepted that I really had to shift focus in my practicing or I was going to show up at the next lesson with the same deficiencies and no progress towards fixing them. The other catalyst was the orchestra rehearsals, where I realized that if I couldn't get the tempos and rhythms sorted out, I wasn't going to be able to cut it.

So: tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock. I'd bought a mechanical metronome that I have to wind every half hour or so. Tempos are adjusted by sliding a weight up or down the bar; each little click is two beats per minute. The beats per minute scale is so small that I can't see the numbers, even with my reading glasses on, unless I squint and look at it under a bright light. I probably should go electronic...

I've reached the point where I can play the basic pieces that use half notes, quarter notes and eighth notes, fairly well. But when the piece starts on an upbowed eighth note, or includes eighth rests on the beat, or dotted quarters, I struggle to match my rhythm to the metronome's incessant tick-tock, tick-tock. I don't understand why I can't just kick off that note AFTER the tock, or hold it past the next tick but not all the way to the following one, etc. Today, I sped up the metronome (not double, but a lot faster) and started playing at an eighth note to a beat (is that 8/8 time?) That seemed to help get the off-beat notes and rests OK, but instead I was challenged to hold the quarter notes for two full beats. It will come...

So now, life with a metronome... In some ways it's a restriction that I didn't expect, but at the same time it's a tool that will help me develop my internal rhythm and tempo. Today, I was really pleased with my version of the Bach Minuet #2; playing with the metronome seems to have helped me work out whatever was holding me back on it. The metronome has really helped me with all four of the Bach pieces in my current repertoire.

Tick-tock, tick-tock

I tapped my foot while playing flute, but as that's hard to do with cello, I just move my toes to the beat. I find writing in where the beats fall in a bar (I use vertical lines above the notation) helps me when I've got dotted quarter or eighth notes I'm not holding to their full value. I don't know why, but seeing where the beats fall helps me keep it under control.

Playing with a metronome is vital to practise sessions I think, though I hate hate hate the thing. I find it hard to play musically while listening to it, but that's not the point is it? Once you get the tempo and rhythms down, then you can 'feel' the piece anyway.

My teacher also tells me to stop stressing about my left hand. It will take care of itself he keeps saying! I think he's right though - I can feel it in orchestra rehearsals when I'm thinking about nine hundred other things. Also, he makes me play stuff just concentrating on where my bow hits my strings, and my intonation is better than when I'm really thinking about it.

Thinking without thinking I suppose. Easier said than done!
I just set my metronome to some speed, then practice with one tick per smallest note (like one tick per 16th, if the piece has 16ths). This usually makes the piece go way slower than actual tempo. Since my teacher is big on having me practice at 1/2 or 1/4 of actual speed, this kills two birds with one stone.

I'm also getting pretty burnt out on the non-musicalness of playing with the metronome though. Tonight is my first lesson since working in earnest with the thing. I'm going to be pretty PO'd if teacher doesn't notice any improvement in my rhythm.
Your teacher is bound to notice you've been working with the metronome, PFS!

My teacher is always urging me to slow down while I practice. Using the metronome for eighth note or even sixteenth note beats sure seems lika good way to get there.

I'll try noting the beats above the bar, like you suggest Erin. I've tried counting them aloud (even just "aloud in my head") while I play, but that seems to get in the way and I miss notes, lose my place, etc. As much as I try, I find by the fifth bar or so, I've stopped counting.

It's just going to take more patience, practice and persistence, right?
While playing along with a metronome does prevent most rubato and taking time at the ends of phrases, etc., you can still play musically when using one. It just takes a little more effort. But there's nothing preventing you from playing with expressive dynamics (provided your metronome is loud enough - if not, and it's electric, you might be able to plug it into speakers), vibrato (unless you haven't learned it yet), and articulation.

It's kind of like poetry. If you have the constraint of having to write in iambic pentameter, or haiku, or some other form, it restricts you, yes, but it can also make you work more creatively.

Though it's true that most times you're working with the metronome you're probably just focusing on rhythmic issues. :)
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