Playing an instrument requires a ton of practice, and in many varied areas. First, we have to learn how to make a sound on the instrument. Then, we have to work at making that sound good. Then we need to learn all the notes. Then work on dexterity and agility with those notes. Then reading music. Then playing in tune. And, for today's article, playing in time!
I know what you're thinking: "I don't need to worry about playing in time, I'll just follow the conductor, or the drummer. Let them worry about it." Sadly, that is how a lot of musicians approach this area of skill, and it makes for some pretty bad music. No matter your instrument of choice, we all have a role to play in not only keeping things in time, but in making that time "feel good". Being able to play notes directly on the beat, or, when appropriate, ahead of or behind the beat, is a crucial component of every player's skill set. Utilizing this skill in conjunction with other players in a band or orchestra requires years of practice, trial and error.
The first step in this process is simple – you need to practice with a metronome!
A metronome is simply a time keeper that keeps tempo for you with either an audio sound or a blinking light. Tempo is essentially determined by the number of even beats per minute (BPM). If a song is set at BPM=60, that means there will be exactly 60 even beats within the space of one minute (in this case, one second per beat). BPM=80 means there will be 80 beats per minute, BPM=240 means there will be 240 beats per minute, and so on. These beats are usually set as quarter notes, but they can be defined as any note value you choose. Whether it's a quarter note, eighth note or half note, there will exactly as many of those per minute as determined by the BPM marking.
Every metronome allows you to set the BPM to whichever tempo you want, and will keep those clicks (or lights) going at a steady pace. Practicing to this requires that you pay attention to the clicks and pace your notes to line up perfectly to those clicks. It takes some time to get good at this, so don't be discouraged, but you will eventually find it getting easier and easier. But remember, few musicians can play with the precision of a machine. The natural looseness that comes with "being human" is actually a vital part of making music sound great (and not "mechanical") and finding the balance between "perfection" and "human" is something we will all work towards for our entire career.
I've been playing music professionally for over 25 years and I have developed relatively good time, but I still find that my tendency to rush a little ahead of the beat, so playing to a metronome is still a vital part of my practice regimen.
There are several types of metronomes to consider, ranging in both features and price. I've outlined just a few examples for your consideration.
THE CLASSIC MECHANICAL METRONOME
This style of metronome actually had its beginnings as far back as 1696, when Etienne Loulie adapted Galileo's principles of the pendulum. It found it's current state in around 1814. This device will look familiar to most people, even non-musicians, because its classic design (a triangle shaped wooden case with a metal bar moving evenly left to right) has remained largely unchanged and is a prominent part of common musical imagery. Ludwig Von Beethoven was the first major composer to begin including BPMs on his musical scores, thanks in part to this style of metronome. Here is a wooden classic by Wittner and a less-expensive plastic version.
THE MODERN METRONOME
Digital technology has allowed the metronome to forego any mechanical workings and offer much more than the basic pendulum click. You can find good digital metronomes starting as low as $10, like the Qwik-Time QT-5. If all you need is a simple "click" and a variety of tempos, this type of unit will serve you well. The Matrix MR-600 is another great example.
THE MULTI FUNCTION METRONOME
It didn't take long for manufacturers to begin adding features to their electronic digital metronomes. Below is a list of just a few metronomes that offer unique features. As long as they keep time (which they all do) then the added features are simply a bonus – you decide which ones might serve you best.
Since I'm a horn player, I've got to recommend the CenterPitch CP10, as it is designed specifically for brass and woodwind players. It clips on to the bell of your instrument and includes a tuner, which is also vital to both your practice and performance times.
(Horn players, read on – my favorite is listed at the end!)
Korg has long been a leader in these type of small devices, so I must mention the multi-function TM-40, which is fairly popular among professionals.
If you have a studio set up already and are utilizing Rack Space electronics, the single-space Behringer BTR2000 might be the right unit for you.
In my research I stumbled across a particularily unique version, aimed primarily at guitarists. For those of you exploring guitar, the chordmaster from Planet Waves seems like a must-have.
One of the more recent innovations to metronomes takes it a step further than the audible click or visual light. Now, you can find metronomes that vibrate (much like your cell phone) on each beat so that you have a physical sense of the tempo. One example that's very popular is the BodyBeat from Peterson.
Are you so loud that you can't hear a normal metronome? Maybe you need a louder audio click. The QT1 from Yamaha receives rave reviews for its increased volume signal.
This particular offering from Metrophones is designed primarily for drummers. It's a "metronome in a headphone"! While I haven't personally tried it, it seems like those of you who may live in places where volume is an issue (like apartments) and find yourself relying on units like Yamaha's Silent Brass may be able to utilize this unit in conjunction.
If playing to a click seems a little, well, boring, then perhaps you'd rather play to the beat of your own drummer. Well, really, it's a collection of electronic drum patterns. Then the Boss Dr. Beat is a great choice for this type of device.
Finally, here's my favorite metronome to recommend for brass, woodwind and string players. The Tascam PT-7 is designed specifically for YOU! Not only does it keep time, but it helps you work on your pitch and intonation, and offers several useful features, including: - On-screen display ideal for students' "Pitch Training"
- Record practice through built-in microphone
- Loop and slow down playback without changing the pitch
- Quickly capture song ideas or phrases
- 20 minute recording time
- and much more.
So, there you have it – one more thing you need to practice with! But, trust me – the payoff is that you will make better music, and isn't that our goal? Happy counting!