Metronomes: Talk About Skills That Are Not Intuitive

I will make a huge, slightly embarrassing, admission here and say that it's only in the last 3 or 4 years that I've been any good at teaching students to use a metronome. I've always tried, but my success rate has been dismal. I've personally been huge on using my own metronome for years, but teaching others to use it has always been tough for me. I continually set goals for myself as a piano teacher, and one of the goals I've had for the last two years is to encourage more consistent metronome use among all of my students. After a few false starts, I feel like we're finally on our way.

I think the biggest misconception about metronome use is that you can just turn the thing on and a student's rhythm will magically, automatically improve. That just ain't so. Have you ever seen a 9-year-old child tune out an adult who's talking to her? Well that child can tune out a metronome just as easily. It can be ticking along and if it's not useful to the student, it just becomes background noise. And kids are really good at filtering out background noise. It wasn't until a dear friend had kids and I got to be an "auntie" that I started to understand better that there are some things that seem instinctual that you actually need to learn to do.

Take eating. We all do it. I just assumed that everyone just knows how. But watching my "nephews" growing, I learned that my assumption was wrong. Sure, babies are born knowing how to suck, so they are able to get at their milk right away. But once they move into the territory of solid foods, things change. You put something foreign in a baby's mouth for the first time, and they don't always know that they're supposed to swallow it! You put a few Cheerios in front of a little guy, and while they may end up in the child's mouth, they might not actually get eaten. Eating needs to be modeled for the kid and tried and tried again until the baby knows exactly what those pureed pears are for and demands that he be given them right away! Then we complicate the equation by expecting the baby to use those newly broken-through teeth. Realization: we aren't born knowing what chewing is. Again. Model. Teach. Try again. Try again. Eventually the child can chew. But then comes silverware... 

In the Beginning

Playing along with a tick, tick, tick isn't instinctual. And it's harder for some people than others. Lately, I've been starting kids with metronomes by having them clap or tap with the beat, and that's it. I want them to hear it, pay attention to it, and feel it. Once that task is mastered, we move on to playing notes.

Quarter Notes Don't Rule

But once we start playing notes, quarter notes aren't my favorite place to start. I like to start with whole notes. Let them focus on one note every four ticks. Again, recall that this is not something we are born knowing. It's not instinct. It has to be taught. Once they can play a single tone, whole notes, at a variety of speeds, then we can go to half notes, and then to quarter notes. After they can play on quarter notes, I might give the task of seeing how long they can stay with the beat. Can they play a single tone on quarter notes and stay with the metronome for 20 seconds? 30? A minute? 

Short and Sweet

Lately, my favorite materials to use to teach metronome skills are the Dozen A Day books. They've been around since the 1950's, I believe, and I find that most kids adore the exercises. They love the little stick figure illustrations on the pages. They like that the exercises are short and (mostly) easy. I like that short and easy exercises mean they can focus on other things... like rhythm. Many of my students have "B: ___ W: ___ F: ___" written next to the title of each Dozen A Day exercise. This stands for "Best, Worst, Favorite." During the week as they practice these, I want them to try them at a variety of metronome speeds. They are supposed to tell me what their "best" speed is (the fastest that they can play accurately and reliably), their "worst" speed (the speed at which they seem to always have problems... whether it's too slow or too fast), and their "favorite" speed (wherever they feel most secure and comfortable). 

After the student can do all of these things pretty reliably, then I may have them use it with pieces. Some kids are great counters, and so the metronome doesn't come out as often. Some kids have that thing on seemingly all the time.

Edit 4/2/2014 -- After I published this there was some talk among my teacher friends about my use of "B/W/F" -- best, worst, favorite -- and I wanted to address it briefly here. I absolutely recognize that fastest is not always "best". And perhaps I should reconsider the terms I use with my students for this. Thanks for calling me out on that!

My Revelations

The more I teach with the metronome, the more comfortable I am teaching with the metronome. I know, I know. Duhhhh. The more you, ahem, PRACTICE something, the better you're able to do it. Sometimes teachers need to take a big dose of their own medicine. 

For some kids, metronome technology is great. For others, simple is better. I grew up with a wind-up metronome with a pendulum where you adjusted the speed by moving a weight on the pendulum up and down. It only went "tick, tick, tick." This worked for me. Eventually I got a fancy one where you could have it beep differently on the first beat of the measure. I didn't like it. It distracted me. I was baffled as to why anyone would want this. And so I just assumed that every student would do better without this new-fangled technology. Boy was I wrong. Some students need that prompt that we're at the beginning of a measure. It helps them! 

Metronomes can really help with subdivision of beats. Many metronomes will subdivide into all sorts of beat combinations... eighth notes, sixteenths, sixteenth/eight combinations, etc, etc. This can be really useful for illustrating a concept, especially for aural learners.

Which Metronome?

Disclaimer: There are tons and tons of metronomes out there. I'm just going to mention those I have experience with. If you're in the market for a metronome, I hope that one or more of these meets your needs!

The Old Fashioned "Tickers"
  • The metronome that most people think of is the old standby, wooden Wittner. Pros: no batteries needed, tried and true, nostalgic, likely to last a long, long, time (I inherited my great grandmother's Wittner, and it works like a champ). Cons: nothing fancy about it other than the appearance, expensive
  • My first metronome was a Super-Mini TakTell, and I loved it dearly. It lasted for 12+ years of heavy use and survived into my college years when it was regularly shoved in my backpack and jostled around. Pros: no batteries needed, hardy, less expensive than a wooden metronome. Cons: nothing fancy about it.

Battery Operated
  • My next metronome was a Qwik Time QT3, and I loved it. It lasted for probably 8 years of heavy use until the arrows where you set the speed were worn to unusable. Pros: Inexpensive, hardy. Cons: nothing fancy
  • After that, I got a Korg TM-40 metronome/tuner combo. I'm kind of ho-hum about it. The metronome is fine. I don't love the particular ticking sound, and it can be a bit confusing to operate. I rarely use the tuner, preferring one for my guitar that tunes by vibration (specifically, a Snark tuner). Pros: does the job, lots of options for beat subdivision and measure counting. Cons: skip it if you don't like or don't need the tuner.
I have had students with various battery operated metronomes over the years. Here are my impressions:
  • Korg MA1BL: Great price, beat subdivision options, does the job
  • Seiko SQ50-V: Good price, simple and basic, strong and loud ticking sound. I really like this one.
  • Qwik Time QT-5: DO NOT buy this metronome. You're essentially throwing away $10. It's cute and cheap and credit-card sized, but it will break right away if it even works at all.
  • Matrix MR500: I also really like this one. Good price, strong ticking sound, simple and basic.

Metronome Apps

I think I use metronome apps more than anything. Pros to using an app: there are lots available cheaply or free and they range from being very simple to being full of bells and whistles. Cons: You need to have your device available during practice, so students who rely on a parent's phone or a family iPad may not always have instant access. My favorites are:
  • Mobile Metronome - For Android
  • MetroTimer - For Apple devices
  • BeatSpeak - For Apple devices (A talking metronome that counts out loud - I love this for students who resist counting out loud themselves or who have trouble with it. For students who often "cheat" the metronome, having the measures counted out for them keeps them "honest.")
  • SpeakBeat - Colleagues of mine like this one. It's much like BeatSpeak (above), but it's only available for iPhone (which I did not have until a week ago!). It has more options than BeatSpeak and is only my list of apps to try soon.
  • ProMetronome - For Apple devices



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