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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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To use or not to use a Metronome in the piano studio

There’s no doubt that one of the biggest challenges in teaching piano students of all ages is imbuing a rhythmic or metrical consciousness.

In my experience, younger students, especially, at the primer level of study, want to race off like there’s no tomorrow. They might begin a piece in a steady rhythmic frame but succumb to a certain impetuousness at any point in their playing, finishing more quickly than they had started. The beat has gone out the window before it had a chance to stick around and make a friendly impact on the music.

Many adult students as well as pupils of all ages, seem to have a universal resistance to sustaining a unifying beat in their scales, arpeggios, and pieces, and as a teacher, I’ve grappled time and again with how to fix the problem.

First off, I’m opposed to using a metronome to treat any student with rhythmic issues. It’s because the device produces robotic pulses that have little relationship to the organic flow of musical phrases. Perhaps the metronome would keep good company with a generator like the one I’d seen onstage during a Milton Babbitt concert at the Oberlin Conservatory. I recall the little old ladies turning down their hearing aids, and individually filing out of rows during the contemporary festival, nick-named the “contemptible” festival because of the droning, impersonal music of that particular era. A synthesized beat went along with it.

To catch up with a metronome every measure or so requires that all energy be directed in that pursuit, rather than permitting the music, with its natural ebb and flow, to permeate the consciousness. (Think about what the metronome would do to a Chopin Nocturne where tempo rubato–a form of relaxed time, is intrinsic to the composer’s style)

As one remedy for rhythmic uncertainty, a teacher can conduct as a student plays, but without instilling a “metronomic” beat. She can help to shape a line and its underlying pulse with her voice intoning beats while assisting with her hands and arms. She can enlist a student to sing “beats” with her, as he plays. If she can help frame music without stultifying its flow, she has gone a long way to liberate it from the shackles of any stringent time calculator.

For pieces with a combination of quarters and eighths, for instance, a teacher can sub-divide the larger note value by inserting ands following the principle beats. But the same rhythmic ambivalence can occur, unless the expanded beats are spaced, breathed through, and not crowded into a tiny space. A metronome will not remedy faulty sub-divided beat counting any more than it did when ticking off primary pulses.

I’ve watched some of the greatest teachers in filmed sequences, working with advanced students, and on a rhythmic level they not only demonstrated phrases vocally, but they conducted, and simultaneously intoned syllables.

Conductors steer orchestras in desired directions with all kinds of syllabic babbling. I tend to fall into this vernacular when I teach, and I’m convinced that it’s helpful.

In an initial warm-up of the five fingers, where a pupil plays up and down in steps from quarters, to 8ths, to 16ths, I start with sub-divided counting, but inevitably when arriving at 16ths, I sing, double-eedle twodeleedle, threedeleedle, fourdeleedle and it holds the music together.

In a scale of four octaves in rapid 32nd notes, I might encourage a student to think in larger groupings of notes, perhaps in a sequence of 8s, so as not to encourage TYPED out playing. In this instance I would also intone syllables rather than numeric beats.

If I do this enough times over the course of weeks and months, the student naturally absorbs the routine by osmosis. He internalizes a rhythmic frame.

Since children, in particular, learn language by this very same process of mimicry and assimilation, it’s probable that rhythmic cohesiveness can be conditioned by an adult early in the learning process.

When I think of tribes in Africa, where complex rhythms and meters produced by native percussion instruments are transmitted from generation to generation without metronomes, I have my answer.

In general, students who have difficulty with rhythmic unity can benefit from teaching that encourages relaxation; focuses on the flow of notes in a melodic and harmonic context, and reinforces resilient beats. Each of these pulses must of necessity blend with the form and content of music.

Where a teacher sings and conducts through an adagio (a very slow movement) of a composition, she may encourage a flowing pulse, that would not apply to a brisk and cheerful Rondo. The character of a movement or composition would also dictate the type of beat that would underlie it.

I’m sure there are many fine piano teachers who use metronomes and believe in their efficacy. Though I might not be a proponent of its use in the studio except when needed to consult on the overall tempo of a piece, I’m all ears when it comes to receiving other opinions.