Working with a metronome

May 31, 2012

My goal for the summer quarter (June, July, and August) is to improve my ability to play at faster tempos. Toward that end I have been practicing with a metronome. From my warm up scales to études to my current pieces everything is done with a metronome. Some days it goes better than others. It seems my sense of pulse is shy. When I think about it I have a hard time playing in time with the metronome. When I stop thinking about it I tend to do better.

Last summer Sibylle and I, along with my best friend Ted, saw Peter Gabriel's New Blood tour. Afterward Sibylle remarked that my sense of pulse was perfect. I knew every rhythm, tempo change, and beat. I've been listening to Peter's music since 1980. I know it backward and forward. When confronted with a piece of music that I am playing, perhaps still learning, it is somehow far harder to be aware of the pulse of the piece. I often think of playing the cello as a form of juggling. Keeping two or three balls in motion is relatively easy, adding more balls adds difficultly exponentially. Playing the right notes with the correcting fingering and bow pattern is two or three balls. Adding dynamics is a fourth ball. Keeping to the tempo is a fifth ball. It's one more thing to be aware of and therein lies the solution.

For me at least I need to eliminate things to be aware of. I need to trust that my left hand will go where it is supposed to without so much conscious thought. And I need to believe that I will bow correctly without paying attention to that aspect of my playing. By letting my body and muscle memory do those tasks for me I free up mental energy to spend on pulse and tempo.

I'm reviewing the Lee études this month as preparation for their inclusion in the cello camp I'm attending in mid-June. Instead of just relearning the pieces I'm playing them (or trying to) with the metronome. Since I played them before without the metronome there are passages where my memory wants to extend notes or skip rests. Adding a metronome to the mix has greatly increased the difficulty of the pieces. However, I am making progress, albeit slow at times. Left to my own devices I would set the metronome to "beep" or "click" once for every note I'm supposed to play. While I may start a piece like that, I have been making myself halve the metronome setting and play two notes for each click. Or halve it again and play four notes.

I'm also working on the 1st movement of the Bréval Sonata using the metronome. Since this piece is new to me I don't have muscle memory of playing it slowly or with incorrect rhythms or tempo. This makes it easier to incorporate the metronome. I'm also being careful to work on smaller chunks of the piece, sometimes just a measure or two, rather than on longer passages. Once I've managed to play several consecutive chunks successfully then I play the whole passage. In this manner I've completed most of the exposition and development sections of the piece. I'm hopeful that the recapitulation will go faster now that I've had some success with the metronome.

In preparation for orchestra in the fall I've started working on one of the pieces we'll be playing, An English Suite by C. H. Parry. It's a step up from anything else I've every played. Using the chunk method and starting with a slower metronome setting I've learned the first three lines and have increased the tempo nearly 60%. As with the Bréval I am hopeful that my ability to use the metronome effective increases and that my forward progress through new pieces also increases.

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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 Twitter.