The metronome is a musician's most important tool. It's useful when you are just learning to play and to read music, but it remains tremendously valuable to advanced students and professionals as well. As a teacher, I can easily identify the students who work regularly with a metronome - there is both a clarity and a confidence in their playing which is hard to duplicate - and can also hear immediate improvement when a student begins to work with one. As a professional oboist, I don't leave home without one, and I don't think I ever play a full practice session without at least referring to mine, and more often using it extensively.
Here's the thing, though. The metronome does not need to be a mindless tool, turned on at the beginning of the session and clicking away constantly. And it has a lot more uses than just checking the printed tempo of the piece you're working on. It is not a barrier to creativity, but ideally can be a spur to it. I have numerous "games" that I play with my metronome in pursuit of musical excellence. Try these out or invent your own.
1. The Obvious Game - start with a hard technical passage super slow - make sure you can play it perfectly. Take the metronome up one click at a time until it's the speed you need it to be. Sounds so easy - but it takes time to execute well. If you find that you can more or less play a piece at tempo but can't slow it down even one iota, or can't fix the one note or articulation that you learned wrong, or - even more insidiously - keep missing just one little thing in a different place each time, go back to this game. Start absurdly slow and get everything right and then inch back up to tempo. There is really no substitute for this patient work.
2. Variant on the Obvious Game - start at your slow tempo of perfection, then drop the metronome two clicks (or 8 if your metronome offers EVERY number available) and focus on dynamics or articulation or intonation or quality of sound (as you continue to play the notes and rhythms correctly). Then go up three clicks (or add 12) and just play it. Back down two, focusing on that one detail, and back up three to just play it. The skipping around of tempos helps you to learn the passage even faster, and at the end your dynamics (or articulation or intonation) have been solidly learned as well.
3. Change the Rhythm - it's hard to play a long difficult passage at tempo, but easy to play 3 notes in a row. Play three notes at a time, holding on the third, then keep going. Turn this into a rhythm of its own, with the metronome at your goal tempo. After this feels easy, try four notes at a time. Then five. Or start on a different note so different sets of three come together. You are teaching yourself how to play fast without the stress of having to play the whole thing at once.
4. Change the Rhythm, II - for a fast 16th passage play triplets with the metronome, so that every beat gets three notes and the beams that you see on the page mean nothing. Or turn triplets into 8ths or 16ths. Gradually work the metronome faster and faster until the notes are going by at the speed they should. This technique and the next will make your brain hurt, but will teach your fingers the notes and keep the rhythm super even. Maintain the articulations of the original if they're unusual - this makes it even harder.
5. Offbeat Metronome - so instead of ONE TWO THREE FOUR it's clicking AND AND AND AND. Again, this is mentally very hard to do, but particularly for passages that tend to rush or fingerings that tend to compress it is very effective.
6. Change the Articulation - practicing a fast tongued passage can fatigue you way before you finish the above games, and tonguing issues are often fingering issues in disguise. Practice all slurred until you approach your tempo, then independently practice the articulation on a single note before you put those skills back together. Conversely, a passage that is all slurred can tend to be uneven, but your tongue is a good controller of tempo. Tongue every note, or every other note, or slur two tongue two, or whatever, changing constantly, as you play the above games, and this can help to diagnose the rushy notes and solve the passage.
7. Play Fast to Play Slow - to plan a slow, lyrical passage, or a very long solo, I will practice (with the metronome) way too fast - even twice too fast - so that I can really hear the phrase and plan the direction I want to take. Then I'll notch the metronome down, down, down to work on the breathing and the sustaining at the proper tempo while still selling the phrase I've worked out.
8. Spread it Out - once I'm confident about my notes and rhythms, I want to free up the phrase, so it doesn't sound so "metronomic". At that point I will set the metronome to half notes instead of quarters, or even to a whole bar at a time. That way I still have marks to hit - I can't just go completely off tempo or rush or drag - but I can use some rubato between the big beats and still have integrity of pulse.
9. Hold Your Tempo - to make sure that I'm holding my tempo steady throughout an excerpt I will set the metronome to the slowest possible denominator of my tempo - at least one or two bars at a time if possible - and play the full excerpt trying to hit the clicks. It's very informative, in that it tells me exactly where my tendency is to rush or drag so that I can work on that specifically.
10. Final Polish - play the entire piece through with the metronome at about 70% of performance tempo a day or two before the performance. This enables you to really really listen for your intonation and tone quality and phrasing and make sure that nothing has escaped your notice.
11. Mark Time. Set it to 60, so each click is one second, and use it to time your stretches - you do stretch before playing, right? Or play a long tone and see how many beats - seconds - you can hold it. Use the click to pulse vibrato against - getting steadily faster for four beats and then slower, with control. Try starting your note directly on a click and ending with a beautiful taper right on a click - harder than it sounds.
My final piece of advice, and one which I wish I could follow more successfully than I do, is make sure you turn off your metronome when you stop practicing. I should have bought stock in Energizer years ago…
Best of luck with your metronome. And please share your games with me, too - I love learning and experimenting with new ideas!