Tuesday, July 8, 2014

I Love my Metronome

I had such a great time with my metronome today.  In fact, I’ve been feeling fond of it for weeks.  I gave a metronome seminar at the Dake Chamber Music Academy at the end of June, and in preparation for it I revisited My Favorite Metronome Games, and although I use the device all the time anyway, and have one on my stand and one on my phone and one on my laptop for emergencies,  I was happy to have been reminded of it and to use it in my work.

In my continuing effort to bring my playing back to normal I warmed up carefully, playing long tones on the reed and oboe and an arpeggio exercise.  Then I tackled some repertoire.  Not the hardest material on my recital, nor the easy stuff which I love but which requires only a brief brushup before my August performance. I came back to the Gavotte en Rondeau from Bach’s E Major Partita.

First, I worked through the rondo theme a few times, and made sure that I was confident with my interpretation and my ability to present it.  It’s only eight bars long, but it comes back over and over and needs to be a comfortable landing place in the movement.  Next I began to revisit the episodes between the rondo statements.  I wasn’t interested in playing all the way through the piece, because I am still dealing with an out-of-shape embouchure, and I didn’t need to discourage myself.  But the episodes vary in difficulty, and I got close to the end before I really began to hate myself. The climax of the movement involves quite a lot of chords, which sound impressive on the violin and potentially very silly on the oboe.  Because there are moving lines as well as chords, I need to roll them very quickly.  In my performances earlier this year I pulled the tempo back and focused on the drama here, but in my practice today I really wanted to think more about the dance.

A gavotte is, of course, a dance.  It is in cut time and starts half-way through the bar so that the phrase is always offset by two quarter notes, or one beat.  The edition I am working from is marked at 84 to the half note.  When I practiced before, and performed, I was thinking about it more melodically than rhythmically, and the last time I remember putting a metronome on it I played it at about 72. 

Since then, though, I’ve been back to the Peoria Bach Festival. My favorite thing about that group and its conductors is the dance-like quality everyone brings to the table, every time.  The pulse is always first and foremost, and we fit the melodies and the nuances into it.  When I play romantic era orchestral music all year I can sometimes forget to do that.

Today I put my metronome on the bar line instead of the half note.  This is a technique that I use all the time - freeing up the music by reducing the number of beats.  With only one click per bar to account for, I can be quite free the rest of the time.  I can feel the interesting off beat tension of the gavotte, I can lighten up my overall approach, and I can dance my way through a delightful piece.  It both frees me up and reminds me of what is really important (the downbeat).  Somehow, though, I hadn’t done it before in this particular movement.

I started at my old tempo, 36, and it felt deadly slow, so I notched it up a bit, and at 42 the piece absolutely came alive.  Since this is faster than I had played before, I was forced to make some different choices in the chords.  I won’t be rolling as many of them as I had been, but the music is more energetic, more alive, certainly more dance-like, and, in fact, inherently more dramatic.

 It’s easier to show the big picture of the work if I am not focused so much on the busy notes in each beat, but rather on the overall shape.  Each phrase, based obviously now on the same dance pattern, can react to the others instead of being a moment in and of itself.  The piece makes perfect sense because all of the phrases rhyme with each other in a very intentional way.  It’s a pleasure to play.

Even in this piece which I have learned well and have performed numerous times, a new metronome approach can yield a new interpretation.  I think I’m more or less the same person I was four months ago, but I LOVE that I can come back to a piece of music and see and hear it differently. 

Thanks, Metronome!


  1. .....moving right along.... you realize that every time I read your posts I get loaded with questions. I went back to your metronome games and some answered.Now A) Are there any people, musicians or not, who have an innate, unerring sense of tempo, like that of absolute pitch?And B)How important, or relevant is the metronome in different genres,atonal, jazz,other cultures?
    (Only because I know that you know)

  2. My goal is always to load you with questions. :-)

    I know some people - conductors and percussionists, mainly - who can accurately identify a click as 72, or 96, or whatever, or accurately generate a tempo given a number. This would be the tempo parallel to having perfect pitch.

    A good sense of pulse is another thing though. A few of my students show a shocking LACK of pulse. Some seem to have it very naturally, and some have to work very very hard to grasp how the metronome functions and how to understand the subdivisions within the beat. Extrapolating from that, I bet there are people in the world who find it naturally effortless.

    I will have to think about your second question. My gut says that all music in all genres has SOME sense of pulse or meter - it might be very complex or very simple, but without any predictable rhythmic structure it's just noise, or sounds, right? But now that I've said that I'm sure there must be exceptions- experimental music which is only about ambient sound, or plainchant in which the phrases are all of different lengths, as the sentence structure dictates? But exceptions prove the rule. I've not encountered much if any music that I couldn't work on with a metronome somehow.

    Thanks, Dimitri!

  3. I wrote the second question hastily. I remember my music teacher'first lesson was "that you can have rhythm without melody, nutmelody without rhythm".And what you said amply confirms that. Thak you for clarifying.