Who hasn’t heard of a metronome? They’re a common feature in any movie or TV show with a musician involved in practice, but many of us don’t know how to use them effectively. Learning to do so will make you feel like a super-hero!
Slow It Down
Whether you’re working on a vocal line, a drum fill, a chord change, or anything else you’ve got to find a metronome speed that’s comfortable. All too often, we try to play something difficult at tempo from the get-go and become frustrated after a number of failures. My students get tired of hearing the analogy, but teaching your hands new tricks on an instrument is very much like learning to drive stick-shift. Each separate motion needs to happen simultaneously yet stay perfectly synchronized in order for the engine to keep running. With a metronome, you can slow down to a speed that gives you time to think of each motion separately and execute them in order.
Break It Down
Often times, there are only a couple of measures in a piece of music that present problems. As you approach the trouble spot you probably feel your heart-rate pick up and hear that critical voice inside your head saying “don’t mess it up this time”. That’s natural and it happens to everyone. In order to get through those tricky parts you’ve got to isolate the spots that you can’t play fluidly. If you play a song all the way through and find yourself crashing and burning at the same point every time, you’re actually reinforcing the mistake. If, on the other hand, you practice just the passage that you can’t get through, you’ll end up discovering a strategy to make it playable. Repeating the one passage over and over again at a slow tempo trains you to use the appropriate techniques and execute each motion the same way every time.
There are plenty of things from daily life that we’ve all mastered through repetition, but it’s easy to take that for granted. Do you remember the first time you brushed your teeth? It was probably an awkward, uncoordinated mess. But through repeating that motion, you mastered it at some point and probably do it absentmindedly now. If you don’t believe me, try brushing your teeth with a different hand and see how it turns out. Learning to do something new on an instrument requires lots and lots of repetition, but not lots of time (like keeping your teeth shining). Short bursts every day work better than long infrequent sessions.
Build It Up
Once you’ve repeated your trouble spot enough at a slow tempo, you’ll be able to play it comfortably. However, getting in and out of it in context of the whole piece will probably still be a struggle. To fix this, you’ve got to practice moving beyond your trouble spot as well as transitioning into it. This new link will be solidified after, you guessed it: repetition.
I’ve called the system I teach to my guitar students Practice Rounds. Let’s say there’s a strumming pattern you can’t play. The first step is to find a metronome speed slow enough that you CAN play the strumming pattern with no mistakes. As you try and sync up with the metronome you can expect to make mistakes, but strive to play the pattern perfectly 3 times in a row. Once you’ve done that, you’re ready to ratchet up the metronome speed. Sometimes you’ll be able to jump 20 bpm, other time 2 bpm will be a challenge. Repeat this process at whatever new speed you choose. Let yourself make all the mistakes in the world, but once you’ve played it perfectly 3 times in a row, you’re ready to crank up the metronome again. Finally, repeat the process at a higher tempo until you can play that strumming pattern 3 times perfectly. Finally, to reinforce the idea that you’ve improved, set the metronome back to the speed you started with and see how easy it feels. You’ve just completed one Practice Round. Doing this exercise for 5 mins a day will drastically improve your ability to play whatever you’re struggling with. As you practice each day, set the metronome a little higher than what you started with the day before and you’ll set a new record for yourself. Treat it like the game that it is and you’ll also find yourself losing track of time because you’re so immersed in the exercise.