The metronome does not lie.

It’s marching band season again, and I’ve had the pleasure of working at band camp for the past two weeks. This means that I subjected my drumline and front ensemble students to some of the most disciplined chop-out routines and intense rehearsal sessions. My students learned quickly that I am strict when it comes to technique and musicality. I set the bar high and they rose to the challenge. However, their biggest frustration was with the metronome. And their most loathed Dr. T mantra was (drum roll, please):

The metronome does not lie.

One of the many reasons I love percussion is that it is a versatile group of instruments with endless sonic and stylistic possibilities. However, no percussionist can escape the basic fact that they must have good time. Once you put that metronome on, everything is exposed. Dr. Beat has no human error. You’re either with the click, or you’re not.

It is one of the most difficult truths to face. It’s easy to get frustrated and start developing horrible perfectionist tendencies. I myself have fallen into the trap, personifying perfect time as a demonic force. Thus, the hardest lesson to learn is not realizing your time is bad.  It’s realizing how to improve it.

Step 1. Realizing the Fallacy

One of the biggest fallacies out there is that people are instantly born with good time. While some people have an affinity for good time or bad time, there is no human metronome that was simply born into this world. Keeping time is a learned ability. One of the easiest ways to start developing good time is to learn how to listen and feel the time in the music. When we’re young, there are plenty of nursery rhymes and rhythm games that teach this basic notion. Some children grow up dancing to music, or even playing instruments associated with dance music. At some point, everyone has experienced this skill and it was usually associated with something fun. No matter the amount of exposure, the foundation is there.

Step 2. Feeling the groove

When I’m teaching percussion to younger students, we definitely start with music/dance games and play along to music. When I work with older students in small groups or in lessons, I do my best to rekindle this fun. Simply put, we start out by playing along on drum pads to something with a good groove. Then we progress to faster or slower tempos with the metronome.

To most of my student’s chagrin, I’ll bring in Pretty Lights or some sort of electronic music that offers a steady beat between mm=80-100. Once they get past the initial shock of their teacher’s strange taste in music, they can easily find a groove. We’ll start off playing 8-on-a-hand. With each drop of the bass, I’ll change the rhythm up, change the dynamics, or even play call-and-response games. Additionally, I let students bring in their favorite music to begin the warm-up. In my teaching, we’ll work on 8-on-a-hand, Stick Control exercises, and Wrist Twister snippets.

The aforementioned method is a little difficult with marching percussion. There’s already a feeling of chaos with the sheer number of people in the room and loud instruments. However, drumline has a specific advantage with feeling time: marching. If you can’t march in time, you can’t move in time, and your hands can’t play in time. With beginning drumlines, I’ll have students start by focusing on moving their feet in time with the metronome. Once they feel comfortable visualizing and air-sticking to the movement of their feet, then they can start playing the exercise.

Front ensemble has the added challenge of playing in time with note accuracy. In lieu of scale passages that resemble the first two pages of any mallet method book, I give mallet players easily memorable warm-ups that implement stepwise, chromatic, and intervallic motion. Once students improve their note accuracy and technique with these types of exercises, I gradually introduce more complex scale-like exercises, different keys, etc. Note, I’m not sacrificing musical elements. I’m allowing my kids to focus on technique with easily achievable exercises.

Step 3. Breaking down the movements

Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.

My husband used this above phrase when teaching me to drive stick shift. Initially, it applied to putting in the clutch and letting the car use inertia, rather than gas, to move it forward. Most people hurry up to stop at a red light, instead of just coasting to it and using the least amount of work/energy. In all honesty, I’m pretty sure my husband repeated this phrase to curb my frustration. We had to start out slow, moving at 15 mph, to learn how to change gears and use the clutch. It was grueling, but learning and changing the gears too fast meant the car would stall.

In much the same way, a percussionist must start with the slow tempo in order to learn to pace the movements of his/her technique. When playing 8-on-a-hand at mm=60, a student must constantly subdivide to help feel where his/her hand/arm/stick should be. Their stick should be hitting the surface with the click, their hand should be at its highest point on the offbeat, and then back with the click. Once this awareness is established, he/she will start moving in time with fluid and smooth motion.

At faster tempos, this has to be felt in longer phrases. The brain can’t think of every note nor accurately process the subdivisions at mm=180 like it does at mm=60. Instead, a student must learn how to group these notes into larger chunks. When playing 8-on-a-hand at mm=180, it’s easier to feel two eighth notes per quarter note, four eighth notes per half note, and eight eighth notes per hand as one measure of 4/4 time. Doing so, also helps prepare the next hand for its group of eighth notes.

Step 4. Rushing or dragging?

This is the age old question when it comes to metronome work. If a student is not with the metronome, he/she is either rushing or dragging. If you are in the teacher’s perspective, it should be easy to tell. If you are in the student’s perspective, you should record yourself and determine which is happening. I’ve had many students swear to me that they were rushing at fast tempos. In reality, they were dragging so much, they phased to the next partial of the metronome beat. If you’re practicing on your own without the supervision of a teacher, you MUST record yourself. Like the metronome, video/audio recordings do not lie.

Step 5. ALWAYS practice with a metronome

A percussionist should be playing with the metronome at every rehearsal and practice session. A basic metronome is pretty inexpensive. A basic metronome app is anywhere from free to inexpensive. Most band directors and percussion teachers have a small supply to loan out. Finding a metronome is not difficult. Another Dr. T saying:

If you’re not practicing with the metronome, you are doing it wrong.

The above phrase is not an absolute (see Step 6). However, not utilizing the metronome for MOST of your practice session makes you more prone to error in keeping time. More importantly, if you’re not practicing with the metronome and the above steps, you’re missing out on improving your own ability to keep good time.

Step 6. Take the metronome away, in small doses.

At a certain point in the practice session, it is important to take the metronome away in order to practice performing. Do not become overly reliant on the metronome. You will not perform with it. Thus, you need to know what it feels like to rely on your own internal time. This occasional moment in the practice session is your daily dosage of taking away the training wheels. Performing is the moment to ride the bike.

Final thoughts:

Never be without a metronome. It is an important tool, like any good pair of mallets or sticks. Again, the metronome doesn’t lie. It also doesn’t judge or discourage. It merely exists to guide you through the tempos. Good time is not impossible to learn, but it does require practice. Learning to play with it, instead of against it, will aid in positive musical development.

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