Technique and Metronomes; Some Thoughts

As I’m sure most of you know, practicing scales, arpeggios and the like is extremely important for any budding pianist.  It helps develop hand balance, agility, playing with thoughtfulness, and a whole host of other things.  Moreover, it can be directly useful in most music that a student will go on to play.  How many times have you played a passage from Beethoven or Mozart to discover that it is more or less a glorified scale or arpeggio?  A thousand?  How many times are bass lines chords in inversions?  All of the time.  The benefits of learning these skills are myriad.  Additionally, they help a beginner student develop a picture that can lead to better understanding of key signatures, chord progressions, and the like.  In short, they are necessary.

Of course, I never particularly enjoyed practicing my scales or arpeggios.  I only did them because I generally did what I was told and aimed to please.   But they certainly did not thrill me.

In my middle school and high school years, my teacher always had us participate in a local Technique Tournament in the fall.  This “competition” required students to perform  randomly chosen scales, arpeggios, and chords in inversions from a pre-determined repertoire at a pre-determined metronome speed depending on their age/level.  It also required that students learn such to play their scales and inversions according to randomly generated rhythmic patters which the student would have to learn on the spot.  Finally, the students chose one etude from a list of etudes and performed it with a metronome for the judge.  In short, it motivated students to pay attention to their technical exercises and did so at a time (the fall) when full work on performance repertoire was still in its infancy for most students.  In that way, technique took center stage in lessons for a little while.

Now that I’m teaching, I always start my students, young and old, with scales and arpeggios.  Some are very put off by this and it takes some convincing to get them to stick with it.  Many students are impatient and eager to play something “real” and don’t want to bother with foundational work.  And that’s understandable.  The trick is to make them understand the importance of what they are doing and to give them the push they need to progress.

English: Nikko brand mechanical metronome in m...

Image via Wikipedia

I’m a big believer in practicing with a metronome, particularly when it comes to technique; however, I find that most of my students are very resistant to use one, even when I’ve gotten them over their reluctance to practice scales.  So here’s my metronome spiel (students, take heed!):

Metronomes provide us with many benefits during our learning process:

1) It allows us to concentrate on fingering and accuracy without having to focus as much on a steady rhythm.

2) It forces us to learn the whole exercise smoothly by making sure that we keep an even tempo.  Typically, students will start playing the scale too quickly until they run into problems.  If you can get them to use a metronome, forcing them into a slower and more manageable tempo, their accuracy will increase drastically.

3) It gives you a metric by which to measure your progress.  If you are learning C major for instance, you can verify your progress by seeing that you can play the scale faster and faster (reflected by a definite number setting on the metronome) accurately.  This can be encouraging and give students a sense of purpose and direction in their practice session.

4) It can give you the push that you need so that you do not plateau at a tempo which is not fast enough.  Students need to learn to play these exercises quickly, but many appear to stop improving after they’ve reached about 80 = quarter note on the metronome.  If their is external pressure on them in the form of ticking, this will force students to push past that point.  Progress therefore will be seen much more rapidly than without a metronome.

5) Metronomes help students with imperfect rhythm learn how to establish a steady tempo.  It also helps students who, while being able to perfectly tap out a beat, have trouble keeping an even tempo with their individual fingers.  Being able to keep a steady beat is essential in all styles of playing, whether solo or ensemble.

So those are my words of wisdom.  I’ll soon be planning my own intra-studio Technique Tournament to encourage students to really focus on technique.  Details on that to come!

PS) For those of you without a metronome, here’s my recommendation on one to purchase.  It is reliable (my first one lasted nearly 8 years), it is simply to use, and it has the added bonus of looking like a spaceship (see below).  A win win in my opinion.  It is also very economical.

Yamaha QT1 Quartz Metronome, Teal

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