Metronome Practice

| posted in: practice 

Metronome. I suspect for many students, and certainly for me, that one word represents the hardest thing to incorporate into a practice routine. I often liken play cello to juggling: I’ve got several balls in the air, the rhythm ball, the intonation ball, the technique ball. Adding one more, the metronome ball, causes me to drop all the balls.

Tonight I wanted to work on the last set of triplets in the Romberg E Minor Sonata, 1st movement. Measures 122 through the first note in 125.

E-G-B A-G-F# E-G-B A-G-F# E-F#-G F#-E-D C-D-E D-C-B A-B-C B-A-G F#-B-E

Each pair of triplets goes up in pitch for a triplet, and then down in pitch for a triplet, and the last three notes are quarter notes.

Initially I tried setting the metronome to 60 for the quarter and playing the triplets. This did not work. I wasn’t able to stay on the beat. Slowing the metronome down didn’t help either, nor did using the triple setting to give each beat a sound for each note in the triplet.

After becoming frustrated and wanting to abandon metronome practice yet again, I regrouped and tried again. With Sibylle’s help I set the metronome to 80 for the eighth note - one click per each eighth note in each triplet. I was able to play that tempo. In fact it felt almost too slow. Working up in jumps of 8 and later 6, I played measures 122 - 125 at 80, 88, 96, 104, 112, 118, 124, and finally 130.

Next I set the metronome to 43 (roughly 1/3 of 130) and turned the triplet feature on. The sounds were the same as a moment before and I was able to play it. Next I set the metronome to distinguish the first note of each beat so that I had tick-tock-tock-tick-tock-tock, and so on. I was able to play in time, and was able to recognize that I was playing the correct note on the beat. I was no longer panicky or stumbling, I was in control.

Working up slowly from 43 to 50 (43, 45, 47, 50) I was able to play in time. Once or twice I lost the beat. Stopping to think about it I realized I was allowing the bow to bounce on and off the string, which gave me less control, and which caused me to lose the beat. Keeping the bow on the string allowed me to play it properly.

Once I was at 50 I experimented with long, fast bow strokes, short bow strokes and staccato notes. 50 for the quarter while playing triplets would be 150 for the eighth note. I nearly doubled my triplet speed in 30 minutes. Not only did I nearly double my speed, I did so with good intonation, solid tone, and relative ease.

The trick is to start slow enough to be successful. If you can’t play it at the first metronome setting, slow the metronome down until you can play it correctly - no wrong notes, no panic, no getting lucky - absolutely correct. Then speed up in small increments 6 or 8 beats per increment, no more. Once you are in the 130 range (or when the clicks start to blur together), reduce the metronome speed to a third of the last number and turn the triplet feature on. Slowly work up from there again.

Tomorrow night I need to be prepared for my initial attempt to not work. One night of success will decay in 24 hours. I’ll need to start slowly again, and can probably jump up in larger increments, say 16 or 20 beats at a time. It shouldn’t take too long to return to 50 for the quarter, set to triplets. Then I can move on to the next set of triplets in the piece, and begin the process all over again.

It is hard to admit that in 10 years of playing the cello I have never really tried to learn how to use the metronome. I used to set it to count the smallest note division in the piece, but since that doesn’t speed up well, I have always abandoned the metronome. Tonight I didn’t, thanks to Sibylle’s help, and I feel like I used it properly for once.

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Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Mastodon.