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The Metronome, a blessing or curse?

My original opinion on this topic was unequivocal. I would never use a metronome under any circumstances in my teaching except to consult for overall tempo. The expression, to be “ticked off” summed up my attitude toward the robotic beat counter.

Setting the wand to any magic number created a despairing search for the downbeat that eluded me when trying to keep up with it. As Thoreau would say, I was marching to the beat of a different drummer.

For students who had endlessly strained and struggled to play five finger step-wise warm-ups, subdividing quarters into 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and, I would tell them countless times that there was hope beyond the bounds of the ticking timer. The beat would eventually flow out of the unconscious, when the player allowed it to “breathe.”

In truth, the metronome cannot breathe or allow for a tempo rubato, the flexible time frame of Romantic era piano repertoire. A Chopin Waltz played with the gadget will sound like it was written as a Czerny exercise, though Czerny, Hanon and their contemporaries surely would not have wanted their music parceled into mechanical measures.

Shaping a beautiful musical line from any era of musical composition eludes the ticking arbiter. The beginning or end of a phrase has its own unique moment of truth discovered when the mind and body are at rest not stressing to meet the metronome at the downbeat. Silences between notes often ride their own crest, giving cues as to when the next note begins. A fermata over a note, suspends it, and eases it out of rhythmic reinforcement.

In Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” there’s a recitative-like section from measures 36-39 that would be beaten to death by a metronome.

Mildred Portney Chase addresses the subject of “Rhythm” in her inspired writing, Just Being at the Piano.

Under the chapter heading, “Innate Rhythm” she says, “We all know the teacher who sits beating on the piano with a pencil (the metronome substitute), counting aloud and directing the student to keep steady time. The student and teacher are so concerned with keeping time that neither is listening to the tone. Tone should not have to be sacrificed to rhythm, or rhythm to tone, but all too often a pianist may end up able to keep a half way decent rhythm having sacrificed tone sensitivity. Development of rhythm and tone can be intertwined by moving back and forth in emphasis in practice. It is possible to achieve a balance between expressiveness of sound and expressiveness of rhythm.”


So what’s the remedy for piano students who insist that they will always be rhythmically compromised?

As language is passed from parent to child, with nuances of expression, punctuations, rhythms of speech absorbed through continuous exposure, so the music teacher, should take the lead at every opportunity to sing, conduct, and phrase measures with syllables to reflect the unfolding landscape of a piece. Tone, phrasing, rhythm, dynamics belong together, all influencing each other.

Conductors use syllables to guide tempo and create rhythmic cohesion. A teacher can double on this approach, using “double-leedles” as a transition from 8ths to 16ths. But her beat substitutes however contrived, must be animated as if their life depended on it.

(Here, I’m conducting a student with big sweeps of my arms to assist rhythm and phrasing) The counterpoint of a Bach Invention was also illuminated in the process.


Singing with syllables (without a need to hammer beats out for emphasis) is in my opinion the best approach that has any hope for success in the teaching environment.

Portney Chase chimes in with the same: “When teaching a child, I prefer to use syllables to express rhythm. She refers to Quantz having told his students “to use the sound of syllables (tu-ra-lu-ra) to feel the flow of the rhythm in a group of notes. The syllables lend a natural lilt to the grouping and accentuation that the fingers might miss in their more mechanical response to such written rhythmic combinations… Pronouncing a sound vocally puts you in touch with the place from which rhythm physically originates. The hand has only to follow.”

So having recited a gospel that refuses to embrace metronomic counting or anything related, how could I justify having used a metronome with a 4-year old who was wedded to Tales of a Musical Journey, a new piano instruction for children in the 4-7 year old range. The book had a strong adherence to metronome reliance in the early stage of learning. All its CD selections were permeated with a ticking timer.

First, this was new territory for me, and a landscape that I might not have sought out. Just the same, my inclination was to go along with the program in the short run, and release myself and the student from the bondage of mechanical beats as soon as the opportunity arose. I don’t think I had a choice given my intuition and training.

As a matter of observation, I had noticed that setting a metronome for the Tchaikovsy “March of the Wooden Soldiers” caused both the *student and I to ignore it and go with the flow. We were in harmony as duet players in a rhythmic- framing partnership.

The more opportunities a teacher took to join a student at the piano bench, imbuing a sense of time’s ebb and flow, with nuances of tone and phrasing embedded, the better chance a pupil had to evolve into a living, breathing musician.

Post script: *Rina, who began her piano studies with me at age 4, no longer requires a mechanized beat ticker. She has developed a good sense of rhythm over time in a patient, learning-positive environment.

RELATED: My original writing about Metronomes

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