BY CATHY FINK | FROM THE FALL 2019 ISSUE OF UKULELE MAGAZINE
The metronome is not only an incredible tool for playing in a solid rhythm, but also for building speed and “looping” small sections of music you are working on.
I was in the studio producing an album by one of my favorite musicians. He had a strong sense of timing but had not worked with a metronome before. Because we were going to add other musicians at a later date, I decided to utilize the metronome, or click track, to keep everyone at the same tempo. After his first few rounds of playing with the click, he said, “Do you think this thing could be speeding up or slowing down?” Answer—no.
First step is to think of the click as your friend. I frequently practice with a metronome both to keep my timing tight and to add focus to the rehearsal. I often use a metronome in my smartphone (get a free one). I put one earbud in to clearly hear the metronome, and one earbud out so I can clearly hear my instrument.
Using the earbud method described above, simply play a rhythm along with the click. When you hear yourself get off-tempo, stop, regroup, listen, and start again. Soon, you’ll find you can keep much closer to the click for longer periods of time. Change tempos and see how you do.
40, 80, or 160 BPM?
BPM are the number of beats per minute. 40 beats per minute is a very slow tempo. But if you need to play something that slow, you can choose 80 and play one note for each two clicks. Or you can jump to 160 for 4 clicks per note. Experiment with what works best for you. Slow tempos leave a lot of time between clicks that are often hard to measure. And, very fast tempos often need to be divided in half, so you don’t hear nothing but click!
This is a tried and true method to gradually bring the speed of your playing up to where you want it. Start by playing something at a moderate tempo, like 75 BPM. When you feel you are consistent with that, bump it up to 78, regroup, listen, and play again. Keep increasing by 3 BPM until you feel you can’t stay with the click. Then back up and that’s your progress for the day. Next time start at 75, or 80 and continue bumping up gradually, increase tempo, regroup, listen, play, and bump up again.
This works well for rhythm playing or for practicing a whole instrumental tune or song. It also works really well for looping a small section of music and drilling it over and over again, first at an easy tempo, then gradually building the tempo until that small section of music comes easily at your final tempo.
Of course, this all takes focus, patience, and a desire to have your music play in time. It also requires that you be honest with yourself about the timing and adherence to the click. If you find that part difficult, you might want to work with a teacher, or music pal who can help you know when you have nailed it and when you are straying. I find that using the metronome really helps me perfect instrumental pieces. And I am one of those folks who loves the Zen of practice repetition. I don’t get bored. I consider it to be a great exercise in improving my music. Rather than think of practice as a chore, I use the word “play.” Oh yeah, I want to be doing this at the best level I can.
Last, but not least, to make the most of your practice time, practice what you don’t know rather than practice what you already play well. When you go through a song or tune and find there’s a “bump” in fluidity, pull that little section out, practice it with a metronome at a tempo you can manage, bump up the tempo gradually, and then put it back into the song or tune to see if it’s now a fluid part of the music.
If so, congrats! If not, do it some more.
Cathy Fink is a Grammy award winner and half of the Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer duo. She plays ukulele in many styles, including clawhammer, and teaches/performs worldwide in concert and at festivals. She and Marcy are artistic directors of UKEFEST at the Music Center at Strathmore.