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 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=asYfvMzjk7M&feature=related) and yardstick of Time (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Sw_trDFJw8) , 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.