A Metronome Practice Strategy for Musicians Who Hate Metronomes
By Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.
Most musicians have been encouraged to practice with a metronome at some point. I certainly was, more than once.
But I never liked practicing with a metronome. It was boring and annoying. Maybe it would have been different if instead of going beep or click, it went quack, but regardless, I dreaded the metronome and secretly tried to disable more than one in my youth.
But then I recently stumbled across a handful of studies which found that golfers, soccer, and tennis players benefit from practicing with a metronome. Which made me go wha…???
Better rhythm and timing = more precise execution?
Anecdotally, there are many golfers who say that the timing and rhythm of one’s golf swing is an important predictor of accuracy and consistency. That if you can get a nice rhythm down, you can hit the ball better.
Which makes sense in music too. Because an inconsistent, herky jerky shift is probably not going to be very accurate or reliable.
But there wasn’t much research looking into whether this was really true or not.
The first step, was to test all the golfers on a) their golfing ability, and b) their sense of rhythm and timing.
The golf test
The golf test involved hitting 60 shots in a golfing simulator, using three different clubs2 And yes, “golfing simulator” sounds pretty unrealistic, but the one they used is actually a pretty good simulation of the real thing. It’s basically a little hitting area, with a screen, projector, and bunch of sensors, that lets you see a fairway and hole, use a real club, and hit a real ball. When you hit the ball, the sensors pick up the speed and direction of the ball, and project it onto the screen so you can watch the virtual version of the ball fly off into the distance and land where it would have if you were on a real course. Not exactly the same, but accuracy-wise, it’s about 99% there.
The researchers measured the distance between the ball’s final resting spot and the hole as well as the club head speed of each swing, so they could see how much variation there was from one swing to the next. Because in theory, the more consistent the swing speed, the more consistent their shots are likely to be.
The rhythm test
Then, came the rhythm test. This was done using a system called the Interactive Metronome. It’s a combination of sensors and a software system that measures how accurately you can tap out rhythms with your hands and feet. Think Dance Dance Revolution but with hands too, and you’ve got the idea (that link is worth clicking on, by the way – it starts getting pretty insane about half-way through).
The test involves 14 different tasks, ranging from clapping your hands together to tapping a footpad, that must be synchronized perfectly (well, within 15ms) of a metronome click. The system measures how early or late you were to the hundredth of a millisecond, so you have to be incredibly precise.
Rhythm training vs. technique training
Then everyone was randomly split into two groups, and went through four weeks of training.
The rhythm group had three 45-50 min rhythm training sessions per week, where they practiced clapping their hands while standing on a balance board, hitting sensors on the wall (patty-cake style), clapping their hands behind their back, and more, all to a range of metronomic beats (e.g. 45, 54, 66, and 78bpm). They got immediate feedback in the form of specific tones in their headphones if they missed a beat, as well as red/yellow/green colored lights on a screen (like this).
The control group practiced their golf swings with a swing training device called the “Explanar Trainer,” twice a week for 20 minutes over the course of the same four weeks. Their training had nothing to do with rhythm, and was oriented more towards reinforcing the right form and technique of their swing.
Four weeks later…
After their training was complete, the golfers repeated the golf shot test and the rhythm test to see what had changed.
As expected, the rhythm group’s sense of timing improved – both in terms of accuracy and consistency.
And remarkably, so did their golfing performance. As a whole, the rhythm group improved from an average distance-from-hole score of 13.1 meters during the initial test to 10.5 meters (a 19% improvement) on the second test. The control group didn’t improve much at all, going from a distance-from-hole score of 12.5 meters in the first test to 13.1 meters on the second test.
The golfers’ swing speeds reflected this improvement (or lack thereof) in accuracy and consistency too. Compared to the first test, the rhythm group’s swings fell within a much narrower range of speeds (i.e. more consistent) than the control group’s swings, which were just as erratic as they were on the initial test.
All in all, it appears that improving your timing and sense of rhythm away from the instrument can improve your accuracy and consistency on the instrument. And we’re not talking about rhythmic accuracy, but technical accuracy – as in playing in tune, and hitting all the right notes.
Which made me think of eurythmics. No, not the band , but the rhythm/movement approach developed by Émile Jaques-Dalcroze (no idea how representative this video is, but I love how into it these guys are). I never took any such classes growing up, so I know very little about this kind of training. But I remember speaking with a sport psychologist many years ago, who had sent one of his golfers (a top-5 ranked PGA pro at the time) to work with a eurythmics teacher in an effort to hone the rhythm of his swing. Given that, and studies like the one above, perhaps eurythmics could be a helpful addition to more musicians’ training.
In the meantime (though this might be over-extending the findings a bit), I think this also suggests that there could be benefit in practicing the timing accuracy (not just pitch accuracy) of our shifts with a metronome – for instance, by using a metronome with the Yost shifting exercises that I loved so much did as a kid. After all, I’ve seen videos of golfers practicing their swings with a metronome, so maybe musicians would benefit from the same approach, working to give difficult shifts a memorable rhythm of their own, thereby improving the precision and consistency of pitch.
It’s possible that you will never become a raving metronome enthusiast, but next time a shift is threatening to get the better of you, try make shifting in rhythm a game. See how good you can get at nailing that shift at 50bpm, and 63, and 79 (or whatever makes sense). Perhaps this could be the trick that helps to get you unstuck?
Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.
After Countless Hours of Practice, Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?
It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.
Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills and a few tweaks in your approach to practicing. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.
Click below to discover the 7 skills that are characteristic of top performers. Learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.