Beat It

Walking across the campus of a big Midwestern university, I hear drumming. The drumline from the school’s marching band is practicing outdoors, with a very loud metronome. Big speakers blast out the regular electric beats — quite a lot louder than twenty drummers drumming. These beats sound like gunshots.

ObjectdestroyedAJ.jpgThe music is intricate with a lot of syncopation, and these kids fit it all in, around the clicks. This kind of practicing is not so unusual in college and high school bands. Technology has allowed Maelzel‘s metronome to roar.

Previously, I’ve been aware of string quartets that practiced with amplified metronomes, souped-up clickers loud enough to be heard in a full-volume rehearsal. Old metronomes required quieter playing.

I don’t believe we know just when musicians started to play through whole passages, or whole pieces, with the metronome running. A few, like Arthur Schnabel, lined up the metronome’s ticking with off-beats, or inner parts of beats, in the music being practiced.

In a 1948 essay, Arnold Schoenberg complains of the current style of performing “suppressing all … unnotated changes of tempo.” He writes: “Almost everywhere in Europe music is played in a stiff, inflexible metre — not in a tempo, i.e. according to a yardstick of freely measured quantities.”

Do we turn ourselves into machines: running on a treadmill at the gym, our hands gripping a game-controller, or practicing over and over with a metronome?

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Comments

  1. says

    My metronome, or so my students claim, seems to speed up on the difficult passages and slow down on the easy ones. Also, quarter = 120 seems to be quite different in F# major as opposed to C major, at least on the clarinet. But seriously, for those of us that feel practicing with a metronome keeps us honest technically, what to do with more flexible passages? We want to make sure that minor tempo fluctuations have an expressive rather than technical genesis.

  2. says

    My metronome, or so my students claim, seems to speed up on the difficult passages and slow down on the easy ones. Also, quarter = 120 seems to be quite different in F# major as opposed to C major, at least on the clarinet. But seriously, for those of us that feel practicing with a metronome keeps us honest technically, what to do with more flexible passages? We want to make sure that minor tempo fluctuations have an expressive rather than technical genesis.

  3. says

    Thanks Richard. The honesty you describe must not have been something earlier musicians could have had. Without the benefit of metronomes, or sound recording, the Bachs, the Mozarts, and all the rest, lived in a world with no “mirrors.” It makes me wonder if flexible playing that results from some emotional response to music can really be categorically distinguished from technically-motivated slowing down or rushing? Bruno Repp has studied many pianists’ playing of Chopin’s Opus 10, No. 3, for example, and I believe he’s reluctant to speculate about what accounts for the “hesitations” that seem to occur at virtually the same moments in every performance…

  4. says

    I’m not actually a purist here. It’s important to “listen” to our fingers too. That said, it can be enlightening to transpose expressive passages into different keys (the easy ones and the hard ones!) and see what we come up with. This is not only for the fingers, but the ears as well. Additionally — I heard Richard Stoltzman at a master class advocate using “white-out” to cover all the tempo and expressive markings when learning a new piece. Gradually the player pencils in his own markings. Eventually one gets to the point where you compare the pencil markings with those of the composer.

  5. says

    I’m not actually a purist here. It’s important to “listen” to our fingers too. That said, it can be enlightening to transpose expressive passages into different keys (the easy ones and the hard ones!) and see what we come up with. This is not only for the fingers, but the ears as well. Additionally — I heard Richard Stoltzman at a master class advocate using “white-out” to cover all the tempo and expressive markings when learning a new piece. Gradually the player pencils in his own markings. Eventually one gets to the point where you compare the pencil markings with those of the composer.

  6. says

    You know what Frescobaldi writes in the introduction to his first toccatas (1615):
    “First of all: these pieces should not be played to a strict beat any more than modern madrigals which, though difficult, are made easier by taking the beat now slower, now faster, and by even pausing altogether in accordance with the expression and meaning of the text.”

    (“Primieramente: che non dee questo modo di sonare stare soggetto à battuta, come veggiamo usarsi nei Madrigali moderni, i quali quantunque difficili si agevolano per mezzo della battuta portandola hor languido, hor veloce, e sostenendola etiando in aria secondo i loro affetti, o senso delle parole.”)

    In keyboard music especially, the use of time is a prime expressive means.

  7. says

    Context and nuance matter. A band ‘way off’ its tempo might benefit from a huge metronome. On the other hand, the Portsmouth Sinfonia music worked in part because it defied the metronome.
    Yet an accomplished pianist might find the metronome a limited tool. Personally, I’d rather sample a metronome into a .wav file, load it into my software synthesizer, and explore.

  8. Ken Shaw says

    Metronomic playing is dreadful, but you must lean to play perfectly evenly before you start making nuances. It’s exactly like practicing scales — it’s the foundation for making music. You can’t depart from something unless you know what you’re departing from.

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