Not too long ago, a friend and I were playing the Brahms Sonata in G Major for Violin (friend) and Piano (myself). The music-making was very satisfying, however coordinating Brahms’ hemiolas between the instruments requires a higher-than-usual level of math. My friend remarked:

“Anna, you’ve always been a very sensitive musician, but you know what your problem is?”

 “Go on”, I replied.

“You need to practice with a metronome”.

The comment stung at the time, but fast forwarding to now, I can’t be more grateful. Besides being a transparent friend, his comment points to the critical distinction between musicality and musicianship.

In early music training, the metronome is usually associated with drudgery and mechanized playing, like a really tough and banal coach. This is because it is usually set at a tempo that’s too fast for the learning. I did this all the time, even as a music major. Even worse, I’d use it as a fast-fix to learn (chamber and symphonic) music quickly. I’d keep it set at the end tempo and ‘straitjacket’ my technique into learning passages. This created patchwork learning and spastic technique, and un-retaining the work as quickly as I learned it. I decided to ‘bite the bullet’ and turn the tempo down, down, down (half tempo is good, or some proportion of the end-tempo) – to as slowly as it needed to be to played while listening – comfortably (I say this all the time to my students – ha!). Once achieved and after numerous repetitions, I get ahead of the metronome. Time to raise the tempo! “Slow and accurate practice builds the foundation for freedom in playing” (A revised quote by one of my piano mentors, I can’t remember which one). I managed years of super-slow practicing for my solo work, however without the enhanced rigor of the metronome.

It’s not too late.

Using the metronome this way reveals the rhythmic beauty intrinsic to the music. There’s an added bonus of discovering your own interpretation at a slow tempo. The metronome wants to help, if you give it a chance. Then your musicality can happen on its own – solidly.