Slow and low, that is the tempo, more or less.
September 28, 2011 4:16 PM   Subscribe

What specific practice techniques improved your ability to keep tempo while playing a musical instrument?

I do have a metronome but I often find myself blocking out the sound of the metronome once I start playing only to find myself out of rhythm by the end. When tap my feet or count aloud to the sound of the metronome, I will sometimes end up counting to tapping to my playing, as opposed to playing to the tapping, once again blocking out the sound of the metronome. One thing that did help was humming tunes as I walked and making each step a beat, but translating that to sitting down and playing is another matter. I'm looking for other tips or tricks that can help me come to some sort of truce with my metronome (and my teacher!)

My biggest faults are cutting short longer notes like dotted half notes and picking up speed when playing a series of rising notes. I know in the end it just comes down to ass-in-chair time but if there is something in particular that helped you or a game that kept you motivated, I'd love to hear it.
posted by hindmost to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I'm of the opinion that the metronome is something to use after you learn to keep time. Your teacher should be ruthlessly, relentlessly refusing to let you advance on a song until you can play it evenly. That's what worked for me.
posted by michaelh at 4:17 PM on September 28, 2011

It often helps to focus on the spaces between the notes. Maybe work on greater articulation?
posted by Go Banana at 4:21 PM on September 28, 2011

My teacher would only let me use the metronome for a few moments prior to starting to play a piece. This was to let me hear the tempo so that I could set my count pace. It's all about counting. She wouldn't let me tap toes, either. Just silently count.

It worked.
posted by bz at 4:24 PM on September 28, 2011

Okay, sorry, this started out short and turned into a rant. I teach instrumental lessons and chamber music at every level from high school to professional and rhythm is a huge issue for just about everyone.

Practice subdividing notes. Start by picking a note-value you can articulate and "fill in" the rhythm with that value (so, for example: replace half notes with four repeated 8th notes). You need to practice this until you can hear the subdivisions in your head even when you go back to playing the original (long) rhythm.

Play along to a metronome but mix up the feedback it gives you -- let it click 8th notes, sometimes quarter notes, sometimes half, sometimes just downbeats...

Put down your instrument and practice singing the music along to a metronome while also conducting.

Keep your instrument down and turn your metronome to 40 (or slower). Practice conducting or clapping quarter notes in 3/4 and 4/4 where the metronome clicks every downbeat.

Sing your part while clapping even [quarter, 8th, 16th] notes.

Practice things slowly and do not cheat the time when the part gets harder and easier -- if you have to slow down at any point in the line, you're practicing the whole thing too fast, and if you allow yourself to speed up during the "easy" parts you are teaching yourself that rhythm isn't important.

Unleash any secret inner OCD issues you may have on rhythm -- subdivide your footsteps when you walk around, imagine polyrhythms against your left-turn signal, learn to clap 2-over-3 or 3-over-4 (or 3-over-5!) when you're waiting for the bus.

Listen to lots of music with killer time and try to keep up. Someday I will put together a "people who have better time than you (and me)" Youtube playlist for my students but in the interim here are two:

Red Hot Chili Peppers, By The Way (in particular the transition that first happens around 0:30 -- the time doesn't change one tiny little bit, yet somehow the song sounds faster)

Monotones, The Book of Love (wait, wait, wait, wait to clap with the THUD after "I wonder, wonder who, whoooo" and I guarantee you will still be early)
posted by range at 4:50 PM on September 28, 2011 [11 favorites]

Mentally shift the metronome's "downbeat" around in your head, then lock to that.

For instance, put it on the backbeat instead of the downbeat. When you get comfortable with that, shift it to the "e" or the "ah" (counting a beat as "one-e-and-ah") and work that way.

Once I was able to mentally place the metronome's beat anywhere, my timing simultaneously become way more locked and way more fluid.
posted by Aquaman at 4:51 PM on September 28, 2011

If humming while walking worked, can you walk and play at the same time? Obviously this will not work if your instrument is large but it does help you get a feel for it.

Try setting your metronome to subdivide the beat - instead of quarteres, set it to sixteenths. Some fancy metronomes have a subdivide setting where the unemphasized beats are a little quieter, but even with a basic metronome you can tell where the notes should be.
posted by kyla at 4:57 PM on September 28, 2011

Do NOT discard the metronome. Ever. No matter what level of virtuosity you reach on your instrument the metronome should always be a part of your practicing. If you have trouble hearing it, use headphones.

Practice scales with your metronome in different rhythmic values, such as 8th notes and 16th notes against the click. Then, vary the speed of the click.

Ask your teacher to give you some more rhythmic studies, so you can focus more on playing in time than on making the melody sing.

I also agree with the suggestion to have the metronome subdivide your beats.

As far as having fun, get some sheet music for some of your favorite pop songs, and play along with those. As long as they are the kind of pop that is strictly in tempo of course.
posted by ReeMonster at 5:05 PM on September 28, 2011

In addition to learning how to internalize rhythm, it seems you also need to work on really feeling how time signatures work. Learning the basic conducting patterns is a very good way of working towards this goal.

My mantra as a teacher has always been, "if you can sing it, you can play it."* If you have bad pitch, you can still work on rhythm by singing a monotone. Your "lyrics" should be the subdivisions of the rhythm. "One-and-two-and (eight note pulse), one-e-and-uh two-e-and-uh (sixteenth note pulse)." Account for every pulse in the time signature and every major subdivision.

You should always be subdividing in your head when you play a piece. Always. For example: A dotted quarter note in 4/4 time is always 3 eights, not 1 quarter note + 1 eigth and certainly not just a dotted quarter note. This is a subtle, but terribly important distinction when learning how to keep time.

If the time signature is 4/4, you should be thinking in at least eighth notes. If you have a major run coming up, your brain should switch gear to 16th notes several beats before.

This can be a major brain shift for some people, because it's the realization that OMG MUSIC = MATH. You need to conquer the math before you can go back and inject the musicality back in it.

If you can get to a point where you're coordinated enough to conduct the basic time signature while singing the subdivisions for a piece of music, you will have trained yourself well enough to internalize everything, save for the occasional foot tap.

Also, don't be afraid to mark up your music to help you see where the major beats and their subdivisions are. I've been playing oboe for over 20 years and still do this. Hell, everyone I know in all the orchestras I've played in do this.

* Followed in conjunction with: "I'm not teaching you how to play the oboe; I'm teaching you how to teach yourself how to play music. "
posted by Wossname at 5:14 PM on September 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

Don't count all the beats. Just make sure you're hitting the ONE. Bothering with mentally trying to keep track of two three four five, etc. is not important like hitting the ONE.

Watch this, and pay attention both to Bootsy's explanation of the ONE and his illustrations of it. Then watch this. And then watch James Brown and say ONE out loud on the ONE through the whole song.

Also, that RHCP song linked above is a good illustration of what range is talking about, but Flea (the bassist) is early in the fast part and it has always driven me crazy. So keep that in mind. (FWIW, I'm often guilty of playing early, too, so I'm not trying to throw stones, but just point out that the rhythm in the RHCP song is not perfect.)
posted by The World Famous at 5:23 PM on September 28, 2011

I remember a music teacher in college telling us something very much like what Wossname says: imagine the "and" of each beat being strongly accented. one-AND two-AND three-AND four-AND. Don't PLAY like this, of course. This was on a day where he passed out John Phillip Sousa scores, and made us all play them together, with only drumsticks. This was actually really useful, although it sounds dumb.
posted by thelonius at 5:49 PM on September 28, 2011

Use headphones with your metronome. Make it so you can barely hear your playing, if possible. This way, you feel the music instead of hearing it. That's what rhythm is.
posted by 3FLryan at 5:55 PM on September 28, 2011

Not sure what you play, but I find playing lots of scales at different subdivisions helped me a lot. What this entails is:

1) Set your metronome to something obscenely slow, like anything in the 50s.
2) Choose a scale. It'll be easier to start with something simple like C or B at first.
3) For your first run up and down, go only 1 octave at the quarter note.
4) On the second run, do eighth notes for 2 octaves up and down.
5) Do triplets for 3 octaves up and down
6) Do 16th notes for 4 octaves.

And then just keep doing with 5 notes/beat, sextuplets, septuplets, and then you're on 32rd notes.

While you may be able to tune out the metronome by the time you're doing triplets, having to think and subdivide out the less common rhythms will force you back into paying attention. All this is done continuously too.
posted by astapasta24 at 7:49 PM on September 28, 2011

Play with other people, that makes it obvious when you're out of rhythm. You'll all force each other to play in time.
posted by joannemullen at 8:05 PM on September 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

It helps me to identify when (precisely) I'm speeding up. I used to do this by recording myself against me clapping. Also teaches better self-monitoring.

For me, it's almost always the long notes amongst short notes. I discourage myself from speeding up by concentrating on tone on those long notes. Sometimes I try to think of them as longer than they are - a dotted quaver is a crotchet with a bonus note tacked on the end. Of course you have to be careful not to go out of time the other way but it helps me.

Practicing triplets also helps because they are so tempting to sing out of time.
posted by kadia_a at 11:34 PM on September 28, 2011

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