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False Dichotomies in Music Practice: “With or Without a Metronome?”

Posted on: June 21, 2021

How can you aid your students learning, and help them develop better practice skills, by challenging the assumptions in their questions? In this blog Mike Titlebaum, author of Jazz Improvisation Using Simple Mellodic Embellishment, explores how to help students develop their priorities in practice.

As a jazz professor, students often seek my opinion about what their priorities should be in their practice routine. They’ll ask binary questions like:

  • Is it better to practice with a metronome, or without one?
  • Is it better to use a tuner, or to tune to the other musicians?
  • Is it better to transcribe famous jazz solos by notating them first, or is better to learn them by ear?

Whenever a student poses a binary question that feels like a false dichotomy, I often begin my answer with a simple, one-word “Yes.” It may seem a little snarky to pretend to evade their question, but I always continue, probing why they think both things cannot be true.

It is entirely understandable why students pose these stark questions. They often learn by poring over the internet, watching videos and reading blogs by musicians and teachers opining on the best ways to learn jazz. Frequently, one approach to improving skills is presented as indisputably superior to any other method. However, it is easy to find excellent and successful musicians who espouse an opposite viewpoint with equal vigor.

To understand why this is the case, it is important to consider the range and depth of skills musicians must have to be successful. The skills needed to perform at a high level are deep and wide-ranging, and humans learn them at different rates. Music-making is holistic, requiring both technical skills (whether or not those techniques relate to the human voice or for an external instrument) and the ability to interact in real time along with other musicians. Many great artists master their mind, body and spirit.

Each discrete music-making skill requires conscious dedication and practice, but we as humans are not able to improve in all areas simultaneously. We need to isolate skills in order to improve them. Addressing any single skill often requires breaking down its the aspects into increasingly smaller components in order to focus on those parts individually. As we improve these tinier skills, we work towards integrating them into our performance.

When my students ask about approaches that seem like polar opposites, I answer that both methods can have great value because any exercise can help to achieve specific skills. Let’s take one particular question as an example: Is it better to practice with or without a metronome? To answer, we have to understand precisely which skill the student is trying to improve. Musicians in jazz and other popular idioms need to have a great sense of groove or time, which translates to the danceable feeling of rhythm the music requires. So, the question of practicing with a metronome comes up frequently in my world.

Ultimately when performing on stage or in a recording studio, we are not often listening to a metronome. We focus on the groove as it relates to the other musicians (Side note: some musical settings do use a “click track,” essentially a metronome click heard through headphones. Personally, I do not enjoy those situations). Practicing alone without a metronome is certainly important to ensure you are comfortable expressing a good groove by yourself. But external forces can also greatly improve a musician’s groove. One of the best ways of achieving a good sense of rhythm is to practice with other musicians who already have a great groove. In those moments when there are no superior musicians in the immediate vicinity, I encourage my students to practice along with recordings of the greats to get the feeling of what it might have been like to perform with them, hopefully absorbing just a little of that greatness. This custom comes from a long-standing tradition. For example, there is a wonderful “basement tape” of saxophone great Charlie Parker practicing along with pianist Hazel Scott’s recording of “Embraceable You” in 1943, before he was famous.

I suggest my students consider the ways a metronome could be helpful to building their sense of rhythm. A metronome can help us audiate groove – to hear and feel beats internally, in our hearts and minds, even if those beats are not being sounded aloud. Most people think of audiation as the ability to hear notes and chords, such as the skills Beethoven had in order to compose the 9th symphony after he was already deaf. For jazz musicians, learning to feel rhythm and groove internally is also important.

I like to think of a metronome as an entirely unforgiving drummer who doesn’t bend to our own inevitable variations in tempo. The wonderful drummer Greg Evans, my faculty colleague at Ithaca College, likes to say that when you’re using a metronome, you’re not practicing the subdivisions the metronome is giving you, you’re practicing the ones the metronome is not giving you. Along these lines, one of the exercises I do with my students is to set the metronome on a seemingly slow tempo, like 40 BPM (Beats Per Minute). If you hear that click on the 4th beat of every 4/4 measure, you can use it to practice placing beats 1, 2 and 3 in what becomes a tempo of 160 BPM, four times faster than the metronome click itself. You experience the first three beats only in your own mind, so this exercise trains you to feel the beats and recreate them in steady tempo. If the 4th beat of the unforgiving metronome drummer sounds earlier then you expected it to, then you are dragging (getting behind the tempo). If the 4th beat lands later then you expected, you are rushing (getting ahead of the tempo). You can see examples of this exercise in a YouTube video of a presentation I delivered at the New York State School Music Association Winter Conference several years ago:

This discussion of off-the-click metronome exercises might prompt you to ask, “Is it better to practice the subdivisions of a beat with the click, or off the click?” Perhaps it won’t surprise you to learn that I use different exercises with my students where they play on the click, which drill different aspects of rhythm and time. Both of these variations of the exercise are valuable, and neither is better; each simply exercises different things.

Responding “Yes” to a false dichotomy can help students begin to understand what they’re really asking. Then, they can strategize on how to answer the question for themselves. That’s when the real learning begins.