February 4th, 2012 2:57 pm
One of the practice techniques I teach all of my students is the “metronome trick.” It’s quite simple: If you run into a passage in a piece that you can’t play at the speed of the rest of the piece, you need to slow way down, and play it with a metronome to keep your pace. Typically, the initial tempo I recommend is 1/2 of the performance tempo, but for especially difficult passages, an even slower tempo might be better. You then play the passage at the slower tempo until you have it solidly “under your fingers” at that speed. Then you set the tempo higher by one or two “notches” (or beats, if you have an electronic metronome), and repeat the process. Each slight increase isn’t noticeably faster, so you steadily increase the speed at which you can play the passage solidly and comfortably. Eventually, you bring the tempo up to, and perhaps a little higher than, your planned performance speed.
In conjunction with that, I also recommend having a mind-set when practicing that will increase the progress made in any given time period. Instead of setting a specific time period during which you “have to practice,” it is far more effective to limit yourself to a specific period of time. Approach your practice session with the idea that you only have a limited amount of time (say, 30 minutes) to accomplish some specific goal (like advancing 10 notches on the metronome with a difficult passage), and focus on that goal throughout the practice session. Even if you don’t hit the goal, you will tend to accomplish much more than you would if you simply decided to spend 30 minutes practicing. It’s a matter of practicing with your brain, and not just your fingers.
This technique is also applicable to other areas of your life beside practicing a musical instrument. In school, for instance, you only have so much time to study for a particular subject — try to get as much study in that time as you can. Over a period of time, you learn what your personal limits are — and then you can stretch them, just a little (like the metronome trick).
My students have all seen my metronomes. My favorite is a large, traditional pyramid-shaped mechanical metronome with a wooden finish, similar to the one in the photo at the top of this article. Many of my students have electronic metronomes, similar to the one to the right, which is fine. A battery-operated metronome will typically be very accurate and versatile, not to mention less expensive, but I still prefer the wind-up type, largely because batteries always seem to go out at the worst possible time. Plus, I find the large, wind-up unit to be easier to hear and see. Which type you choose will depend on your own needs. Since I use my metronome exclusively in my studio, I am not concerned about portability, and the convenience of being able to quickly re-wind the metronome outweighs its greater cost. If you need one that fits in your case, to use in your school’s practice rooms, then the small electronic units have a clear advantage. There are very small wind-up metronomes, but they tend to be either very expensive, or not very accurate or reliable. To offset the problem with the electronic unit being a bit harder to hear, you can get one that has an earphone jack, and put an earphone in one ear with the volume adjusted to your needs.
Another type of metronome you might consider, especially if you already have a smartphone, is a downloadable metronome app. I have a free one on my Android phone. I made good use of it on my last cruise vacation, when I did not want to carry a large metronome. You smartphone app can also be used with an earbud, just like the dedicated unit shown to the right. The Seiko DM50S Clip Digital Metronome has a convenient stand-clip, and an earphone jack, and is relatively inexpensive.
Regardless of what sort of metronome you prefer, I strongly urge all of my students to get one, and practice regularly with it.