Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Metronome: Monster or Friend?

I find myself in the midst of a diverse group of musicians who are active on twitter. We are composers and performers, students and teachers, amateurs and pros. Recently a conversation about metronomes caught my attention, which led to this collaboration of blogs on the subject.

I fall in the category of amateur. I am also a student and a composer. For this reason, I will tackle the emotional end of metronome use and leave the technical aspects of metronome use to the teachers and pro's to talk about.

My metronome is a source of love and hate; a tool that helps, or a beast to appease. I have been playing flute now for eight years, and was in my 50's when I started so it's quite a different experience than the child student.

My metronome is a merciless taskmaster, tick-tick-ticking and never missing a beat. One little falter of my fingers and I am off the beat--out of sync. And still it just goes on ticking. Pushing me to keep up and in doing so I tense, and miss all the more.
It took my teacher about two years to get me to stop complaining and resisting this beast-tool....and probably four or five years to get me to use it without being told to do so on any kind of a consistent basis. It is only in the last two years that I have come to see the good side, to actually begin to like it.

My current focus is the balanced placement of 4 notes fitting into a single beat. It is invaluable as a tool to make sure I hold a rest long enough. And don't forget those tricky places where the note is on the half-beat! I have found placing a note between the beats ever so much harder that it seems.

Speaking of beats, did you know that every beat has a beginning, a middle and an end? Even those really fast, close-together beats? Oh yes! If you lead the beat and your duet partner hits the tail of the beat, you will be out of sync, even though both of you are technically "on" the beat!

Another challenge, which may only apply to flutists, is the tone in which the metronome ticks. I find it almost impossible to hear over the flute, because the tone/tick is in the same frequency level at the flute range. I think the general tone of a flute contributes to this masking problem.

Here's what I think is happening: Back in "the good old days" of mechanical metronomes, the sound was created by the resonance of the wood casing. Today it is generated by electronics.

I have two metronomes: a Korg MA-30 and an app on my iPad, "Metronome Plus." The Korg is accurate, easy to tote around, has a visual representation of the swinging lever of a mechanical metronome. It has plenty of options for split beats, leading beats, and an earphone input. The iPad app has all of that, plus an option to change the tone of the beats. Even with several tones to choose from, I find it hard to hear. I am waiting for developers to give me a nice bass tone that I can distinguish from my flute!

Nevertheless, this beast-tool is an invaluable resource for anyone who desires to play an instrument. It is the only means to proper note placement. As a composer, when I put music into notation, I have a reason for every beat and portion of a beat. I don't want the performer to change my rhythmic choices. So I try to perform other composers work with as much accuracy as I can possibly manage.

Bottom line: if you chose to play an instrument, proper note placement is just as important as your tone, air, bowing technique, or fingerings. Yes, the metronome is an unfeeling, relentless little beast. Embrace it, love it, and get beyond the tension. It is your friend.
Read more on metronomes: I will be adding here over the next several days links to the other collaborators on this project. So check back for links! First up: 
  • Erica Sipes Click on her name to go to her blog site: "Beyond the Notes"
Please note: links for the metronome and iPad app are offered for your convenience, not as a means to generate income for me. 

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