Metronomes, musical references, …..and flight simulators.

The question was posed to me, “Some say practicing to a metronome is not helpful to a musician.  Is there really a benefit to practicing with a metronome? What is the purpose” Here is my response.

I remember when I started practicing with a metronome, and I remember how things tightened up. I don’t really like to use the word metronome, I use the word reference. I think “metronome” is too narrow. I think you need to practice with a reference. If you’re in a practice setting you don’t have a band playing there backing you up while you practice modes, arpeggios, and walking bass lines. The reference (or accompaniment) could be a jam station or drum machine, or that reference could be a metronome.

When I was a younger musician I wasn’t as disciplined, I didn’t practice with the metronome, not because I didn’t want to or didn’t feel that I needed to, but I didn’t know that kind of thinking existed. I didn’t take music seriously enough to know that music is a discipline. I got kind of good kind of fast and it wasn’t because I was trying, maybe because I had a predisposition to it, I don’t know, I don’t even want to try to define that. As I got serious and started thinking that this something I could do as a profession, then I realized that I needed to have a discipline, I needed to have a curriculum, I needed to have an approach. I came to believe that practicing with a reference, which we call a metronome, was important.

The use of a reference always prepares you a little better. Its not like you CANT get good without using the reference but I believe that reference CAN make you better. I’ll only speak for myself and my students. I have seen students time get better from working with a metronome. A matter of fact there are couple of useful concepts I use such as modes of rhythm ( and yardstick of Time ( , that are made a lot harder to understand without a metronome. It is harder to acknowledge a subdivision of time without a reference.

I’m not saying you cant get good without practicing to a metronome, Metronomes have not been around as long as music, so it goes without saying that it can be done. But saying everyone doesn’t need one because so many musicians have gotten good without it is like saying that because people got good at flying planes before there were flight simulators means you shouldn’t use one. A flight simulator and a metronome offer you the same opportunity, a no risk reference and simulation of the real thing. There were a lot of casualties in airplane flying and training before the flight simulator became popular, and the flight simulator provided a reference for the training pilot without the risk. It is a fact that casualties in airplanes dropped significantly as a result of the use of flight simulators and that people were initially dubious of the benefits. (check out the book “The Talent Code” for more on flight simulators and musicianship)

I mainly use the ‘reference’ of a metronome for 2 reasons. The first is that humans don’t have perfect time. we can get ‘closer’ to making our internal clock more accurate by playing with a perfect reference. And as our internal clock becomes stronger you take away more of the perfect external time source. For instance, you can practice 400EPM(events per minute) with the metronome at 400, 200 100 50 and 25 and it still be metric. But the slower the speed requires that you rely more on your internal clock.

The second reason to practice with a metronome is to chart your progress. At first you may be able to do an exercise at 70BPM. As you get more and more comfortable you increase the tempo.

As I said before, practicing with a metronome is analogous to learning how to fly in a simulator. You remove the risk and hazards of learning how to fly when you use a flight simulator. You can practice (to a degree) bad weather situations in a very safe environment. You can practice other risky situations in a safe environment so even if you encounter that situation you are prepared. Likewise, you don’t want to find out that you can’t walk a bass line to Giant Steps at 250BPM when you’re on the bandstand. You’ll crash and burn. It’s better to crash and burn in the safe environment of your practice space while practicing with a metronome. And after you practice walking Giant Steps a lot with a metronome while slowly increasing the tempo you’ll get it up to 300BPM. And then 250BPM will be easy for you. It’s the same way that we use flight simulators. You don’t want to crash and burn on an actual flight or an actual gig.

Like flight simulators, new metronomes use more technology than older ones! We have ones that talk and do complex time signatures and subdivisions. We have metronomes with graphic displays and accompaniment too.

By the way,…I wouldn’t fly on an airline that didn’t use flight simulators to train their pilots. I’m not saying that they can’t become good pilots if they didn’t learn to fly on a simulator. I just believe that the pilot who learned on a simulator is going to’ be better prepared. I feel the same way about practicing music with a reference too, whether it be a metronome or an accompaniment machine.

I feel so strongly about practicing to a reference that I don’t even like to discuss it or debate it, its so obvious. To deny the benefits of something that you know is beneficial, just because you didn’t need it I think is shortchanging other people. Just because you may have been good enough to not need it, doesn’t mean that somebody else wont benefit from it.


About anthonywellington

Musician, Clinician, bass Player for the Victor Wooten Band.
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3 Responses to Metronomes, musical references, …..and flight simulators.

  1. David says:

    There were a lot of casualties in airplane flying and training before the flight simulator became popular, and the flight simulator provided a reference for the training pilot without the risk” Yeah. Lots of people died because they didn’t understand the intricacies of the machines they were dealing with. The survivors took the “well, I won’t do that again” approach, and applied what they had learned from the bad things to the training so at least that scenario wouldn’t happen again. If you can’t jam in practice, you can’t jam in real time.

    Why is a drum machine better than a real drummer? It keeps perfect time and won’t steal your girlfriend 😉

  2. Preston says:

    Good call. Timing is a must and we must work on this neglected principle. It gose back to the one word we cannot escape which is “groove.” How can we groove with no timing? I am working on 3 octave modes across 6 strings and for this to work smoothly I have to use a metronome.

    Good blog Anthony and Matt

  3. Roy Vogt says:

    Those are some valid points. I think where some students and players make a mistake is when they try to play in the flight simulator too soon. If you’re just finding the notes you need to play in a given line the metronome won’t help.
    Case in point:
    I had a class full of bassists playing Charlie Parker’s Blues for Alice on Tuesday. The student playing the walking lines was having a hard time with timing. In his case it was because he didn’t know where to go next. He could certainly play quarter notes in time when it was a pedal F, but not when he had to make decisions on the fly. The solution was to write out and learn a bass line for the tune out of time and then play it in time.
    I compare this scenario to trying to translate a sentence from English to French while I snap my fingers in time. It’s not going to make you translate any more effectively and may even be a distraction.
    A flight simulator like a metronome, a drum machine, Band in a Box, or playing along with CDs is a good thing when you’re ready to practice your performance. It’s a substitute drummer. Personally I’ve found using on on 2 and 4 (the snare backbeat) or the and of each beat 1-&-2-&-3&-4-& can be helpful. So can putting one beat somewhere (say beat four on each bar or every other bar). This makes you responsible for the downbeat, always a good thing if you’re a bassist.
    Where the waters get muddy is that some instructors categorically reject the metronomes, etc. when they are really talking about learning (“regarding”) the material and not performing (practicing) which is when the Flight Simulators come in handy.
    A final interesting aside:
    You and I both witnessed Victor Wooten taking a young and talented bassist out of the crowd at a Master Class at Summer NAMM last year. He had the bassist play a groove and then play the groove again after he vividly imagined the drum groove he was playing with. The performance was transformed by the bassist using his mind and imagination.
    My experience is that most students have pretty good time as long as they know what they’re playing and are playing at a skill level they’re comfortable with.
    Fascinating blog-I’m really enjoying them! Keep ’em coming!
    Peace and Safe Travels,

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