Sunday, October 05, 2008

The Importance of Practicing Wth a Metronome

It seems I'm forever offering advice to my fellow musician friends about the importance of getting the fundamentals of their chosen instrument(s) under their belt before worrying about learning a bunch of songs that are beyond their current capabilities. Sometimes I am asked for my opinion; at other times I simply offer it up - like the rest of the world.

For someone who offers up so many opinions you'd think perhaps that I was an expert musician, but of course, I can barely play anything myself. Do you need to be an expert to offer solid advice though? I don't think so. Right or wrong, I consider myself to be a pretty good observer, and from my observations and experiences, I figure I can offer some reasonable advice from time to time. Maybe not always, but at least on occasion.

On his DVD Playing Banjo By Ear and Learning The Chords, Ross Nickerson says "when you lose the chord structure of the tune, or the timing, music can simply fall apart." I couldn't agree more. My advice today will focus on the timing aspect of music and the importance of practicing with a metronome.

It seems to me, the majority of people simply refuse to put the required amount of time into this important aspect of their playing. When I ask people why this is, the answer is almost always something along the lines of "I know I should, but it's boring." Boring or not, it's important, and right now is as good a time as any to change your mindset before you develop a bad timing habit even further!

So big deal - it's boring! Get over it! Nobody is suggesting you sit down with a metronome for hours on end and play along with it. I agree - it is boring and if you're not alert, it can put you to sleep. However, if you can convince yourself that 10 or 15 minutes a day with a metronome won't kill you, I think you'll be very pleased with the improvement in your timing.

Some of us think "I don't need no stinkin' metronome." Let me tell you friend - you do. Your timing may not be as perfect as you think. In fact, it's not! Everyone can improve with a metronome no matter how long they have been playing music and no matter how good they think they are.

It never ceases to amaze me when I hear the local yocals say something like "why do we need to practice?" before playing a gig. Ron Block, who plays banjo and guitar with Alison Krauss & Union Station, plays with a drum machine or metronome almost every day of his life. Ron's timing is so flawless that you could probably say the man is a human metronome! Gee, I wonder why his timing is so good? How is it then, that a lot of us think our timing is good enough that we don't need to work on it?

I just want to make sure I have this right. Ron Block, who has been playing music nearly all of his life still thinks he needs to work with a metronome every day to keep his timing up to snuff, but most of us amateurs don't spend 10 minutes a month working on our timing because our timing is "pretty darned good." Some of us don't even know what a metronome is! Is it simply that we just don't care?

Another aspect of playing with good timing is to listen to what others are doing on their instruments when playing music. It's really frustrating to be playing at a certain tempo and then have the tempo of the tune change when someone does their break or begins singing.

Let's face it - as amateur musicians just trying to have a little fun at a jam session, we know it's not likely that we'll be the next Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, nor are we trying to be, but does that mean we shouldn't try to improve? Most of us know all too well how "not fun" it is to play with someone whose timing is so bad that you just wish the person wasn't there; they can make a jam session spiral downward real fast. It's not nice having such thoughts about another person, but man!

When we think of how bad another person's timing is we should also question whether our own timing is good relative to the other musicians in the group. In some cases maybe we are the person whose timing is the worst. Who would want that?

I'm not implying that we shouldn't try to help others by playing music with them, on the contrary. However, if the "other person" never does anything to improve and makes it known they have no intention of practicing, it's not long before I won't be inviting that person to my jam sessions. As long as I see improvement or intent to improve, I'm okay with anybody. I still question why anyone would allow me at their jam sessions; I'm just glad they do.

Earlier this morning I was working on that tough lick (Sourwood Mountain) I spoke of in my previous post. After some frustration, I took my own advice and said "it's time for the metronome." Not only did my timing of the lick improve, but at the end of the exercise I was able to insert the lick into the tune without stumbling. That's enough evidence for me.

These days you can get an electronic metronome for very little money; I paid just under $20.00 including taxes for a WC-1000 (shown in image above) . There are also lots of free metronome programs that you can run on your computer. I mostly use a computer program called Weird Metronome, simply because I'm in front of my computer a lot, practicing with other tools such as Transcribe! from Seventh String Software.

Commit to using a metronome for 10 or 15 minutes every day you practice - it won't kill you; it can only help. The boredom excuse just doesn't cut it. Now, get at it!

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