Do your students get frustrated when they practice to a metronome?
Years ago, when I first began teaching some part-time lessons to friend’s kids I did not have a home or studio to teach in, so I taught in each students home, driving from house to house. This gave me a bunch of great experience in seeing the family dynamic and it created some great stories, so I guess it wasn’t as bad as I remember! At one families’ home, I left an assignment one week for my 7 year old student to practice her piece with her metronome. In our very next lesson, we were a few minutes into practicing when I noticed the family metronome wasn’t on top of the piano where it usually sits and so I asked where her metronome was. She quickly pointed behind a nearby couch. I looked and it was hidden behind the couch, in pieces on the floor. So I asked what happened, and she replied honestly that she threw it against the wall because “it would not follow me”. I had to laugh, this was my first clue of course to solving the metronome dilemma: how do you get a student to follow something that is almost abstract to them and useless?
After that experience I seriously questioned “why do we use a metronome to teach tempo.” Then after pondering on that for weeks I thought that maybe I should be focusing more on groove and feel, so that it creates a passion for music. Could there be a better way that is not frustrating and really works? Hmmm 200 years ago metronomes did not exist, so what did Bach do or Mozart use to feel the timing in a song and work passages up to speed. So of course I thought, they had to do more listening and they probably experienced, copied and appreciated the sound of music first, when they were children. And so I created listening assignments for my students and parents to make sure they were actually following up on a crucial part of the musical experience, listening and enjoying real music, not just touching their instrument.
And so I started my quest, and I stopped using a metronome in lessons. I focused more on singing and listening to recorded music with my students and less playing the piano, so they could copy feels and concepts. We started clapping to songs and doing dance like swaying, in an attempt to help the students feel the movement and groove in the songs. We talked about the strong beats and weaker beats and we practiced clapping to songs that had strong beats and clapping on the back beats and the syncopated beats. It was fun and it was working. Most of today’s current pop songs are great for working on beat and groove and of course the students love to sing, clap and sway along to their favorite tunes, so it is a win-win thing.
I am fortunate to have a piano that has 1000 styles of drum grooves built in, and so on some lessons we move onto clapping with just the drum grooves only, without melodies and without playing the piano or guitars. I encourage counting along and tapping our feet. Sometimes this is a natural tendency and is built into the students, many times it is not. I try to do this just a few minutes a week in their lessons, to build up excitement for it and expectancy, and it works. And then we move onto playing along with the beat. I use scales to start with as I’ve usually already taught a few to each student in their first months of study and they are a good solid thing to use and return to when introducing new concepts as the performance part is down and solid. The drums become an easy addition, and its fun and students want to do it. Got ‘em! Then we go back into their etude books and I find something easy to pair with an infectious drum groove and demonstrate it for them first to show off how “cool the song is”. Sometimes I’ll play and make up a funny lyric to describe the notes ascending or going slow, slow fast (rhythm) and then I make them sing that with me and we’ve got it. Then we move the concept into their pieces and “feel the drums” that Beethoven and Mozart intended, and it starts to come together.
Finally I begin to circle back around after weeks and/or months to get these concepts perfected, and we then graduate back into using the metronome. But I usually I play a drum groove first to get them swaying with their favorite practice piece so that they understand the groove and the music’s beat and forward movement, and then I replace the rich drum texture with the sharp attack of a metronome but I describe that the metronome is not just a boring tool but instead it is representative of the drums/conductor and they keep swaying and we keep playing.