As a vocalist, should you practice singing with a metronome at your side? Read on for St. Augustine, FL teacher Heather L.‘s advice…
Metronomes are devices that produce sounds in regular, pre-chosen rhythms. Many years ago, the only metronomes were simple gadgets. Though the first one that’s even similar to what we now think of as a “modern” metronome was invented in the 19th century, the kind that most adults are familiar with is a mechanical, wind-up metronome. It makes a sound like someone knocking on a small door. Nowadays, nifty electronic metronomes are manufactured on their own, or in a small device combined with a tuner, and they can now even be found online and on your smartphone as an app. They are utterly customizable, and I’m not talking just about the time signature, but even the sound itself.
Pros and Cons of Using a Metronome
So many musicians use a metronome all the time, but there’s always been a lot of debate on whether or not they’re even effective. Supporters of its use say that it helps to encourage an internal sense of rhythm, it helps to keep musicians playing at a constant speed (if they tend to have a tendency to speed up or slow down), and because you can set it to a composer’s indicated tempo marking, you can get a true idea of the speed he or she wanted the piece to be played. Opponents of the metronome claim that it simply creates mindlessly mechanical musicians, devoid of music expressiveness. Over the last decade of teaching piano, I’ve used a metronome sparingly, fearing that students would go insane if I played it incessantly. But recently, I’ve found it more and more useful. Overall, I’ve come to believe that pianists, especially those in the beginner and intermediate stages, need a metronome. But do singers need a metronome?
Using a Metronome for Singing Practice
I taught a voice lesson this morning to a 65-year-old female student. She is a complete beginner who has a lot of promise. Because it’s so important that all of my students learn to sight read, I made sure that I got an intensive session in for her today. In the middle of sight reading melodies, she suddenly asked, “Why is that dot round and without a stem?” She was asking what a whole note is. As I explained note rhythms, and specifically that a whole note is one that’s sung or played for four beats, I realized how much I needed a metronome in that moment. I would’ve played my guitar, the metronome would’ve sounded its steady beat, and my student would’ve heard that steady beat in the background as she sang. As she sang that whole note, she could’ve heard four beats go by. That would’ve reinforced her learning aurally.
Sure, I was able to strum and tap my guitar side to get a similar effect, but what happens to my student tomorrow when she goes to practice singing on her own? She doesn’t play an instrument. And even if she did that doesn’t mean at her beginning stage that she’d be sure to stay consistent in her rhythms.
Yes, music is a living thing, and living things naturally slow down and speed up. Music is a living thing that lives inside us, not on a written page. That page is a guide, a map that shows us the way. But it’s not the way. Rubato, for instance, is an Italian term that means literally “to rob,” and musically, it means to slow down and take time away, so to speak, only to “give it back” and speed up later on. It’s a beautiful thing. But metronomes don’t know rubato. They are faithful, true, and dependable, which is exactly why they’re so important for your musical studies.
Other Ways a Metronome Can Help
Singers need metronomes. A lot of composers and even songwriters include very particular, and even not so particular, tempo markings in their works. These markings go from vague, like “with movement,” to an exact number of beats per minute, like 132. Unless you know just what 132 beats per minute sounds like, when you see that 132 on your page of music, you’ll just be guessing. And have you ever slowed down or sped up in song, without even knowing it? Me, too. Metronomes help.
Think of the last time that you sang with another musician. Did you find yourselves having to take a few minutes to talk about exactly what tempo you’d play? Did you get a little frustrated when someone sped up on his own? A metronome would’ve helped.
In the end, the metronome becomes a trusty friend, there whenever you need it. But someone doesn’t have to be your roommate to be a trusty friend. And your metronome doesn’t have to be a nagging, annoying, or constant companion. You can be simply friends, and what a great friend it is to have.
Photo by Niki Odolphie