Can the metronome be bad?

Early on in our trumpet studies, we learn how important a sense of time is, and we learn to use the metronome. This powerful tool helps us to learn how to be good ensemble players and how to mark our progress, but it can have some negative outcomes if used poorly.

If you are using the metronome to gauge your progress in finger dexterity or articulation or perhaps slurring, you may find quick progress for a while. After a week or two, you will probably start to have a harder time improving your best speeds. Psychologically, you want to push the boundaries of your ability, but your body does not respond. If you live in the land of “just beyond your ability” then you begin to try too hard. Trying too hard leads to tension in your posture and muscles and will lead you away from good form. You will begin to dislike your playing. You will perhaps even think that you aren’t trying hard enough. Of course, this is a terrible place to be in.

It’s not the metronome’s fault, but our use of the tool. Instead of mainly relying on the metronome as a motivator for faster technique, let it become more mundane. The metronome works really well when you are practicing slower speeds. It helps to refine your sense of rhythm and predictability as an ensemble player. You can also use the metronome for timing drills–this is where you practice beginning a note at a certain time, synchronizing the air, lips and tongue.

You’re still going to want to practice faster things, but I recommend doing this less frequently. When you reach your maximum, back off your speed and practice for fluidity and confidence. How smooth can you sound? How poised can you be?

You could also try large cycles of metronome speeds for certain passages. Let’s say your targeted speed might be 120 bpm, but you can only get up to 104. Once you reach 104, start reducing your daily speed-targets to 100, then 96, 92, and so on, until you reach something like 60. At that lower speed, your attention is now focused on precision and fluidity. Then, over the next few weeks, go back up to your high speed (whatever it might be). Be patient with this process. If you get faster in the long run (which is likely) that’s fine. If you don’t, that’s also fine. You’re exploring limits of performance, other than speed, along the way.

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