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To click or not to click? Or, what’s in a metronome?

All musicians benefit from practice with a metronome, yet many, if not most, musicians tend to avoid it some or all the time. The metronome can feel like a scolding tyrant reminding us of our incompetence, or maybe we want to get through our work quickly without the discipline of methodical practice, or maybe we believe that the metronome is obstructive to our “feeling.” The metronome is still a good idea, though, under any circumstance.

Why is that?

The metronome is not just a timekeeper; it’s also a symbolic proxy connection to a power greater than ourselves. All the universe is vibrating energy; the earth around the sun, the seasons, the tides, the circuit of electrons around the nucleus of an atom’s the vibration of a string, the contents of a sound, a thought, or a feeling, are all vibrations of different types and frequencies. Harmony and rhythm both consist of vibrations.

As we practice with a metronome, we are forced to confront our inner obstacles to harmonizing with things outside ourselves. As we seek perfect harmony with the metronome’s beat, things begin to change on our insides. We can access our “zen,” a deep inner peace that some say is the source of all our energy. Some might call this power “the god within” or “satori” or “zen” or “the higher power” or “the Christ spirit”-it’s been given many names in many cultures over time and history. As we continue to play with a metronome and acquire the competence and skill necessary to stay with it comfortably, our sense of connection with our instrument comes from a deeper, calmer place, our technique gets more efficient, and our sound and intonation improve. There is nothing about playing that does not benefit from this discipline. It has such a profound effect on approach, skill, temperament, and attitude that it’s really worth doing.

We don’t often hear about the subtle, yet profound things that go on inside us as we practice; these states of mind and focusing of awareness have been the province of mystics and spiritual adventurers, but musicians have always had a presence on the peripheries of mysticism. A performer who is completely in tune with his instrument can be mesmerizing and have a powerful effect on his audience. The metabolic and energetic changes that take place in a relaxed, focused state are measurable, and part of the art of learning to play is the art of finding these states of awareness, of “presence in the now,” being “in the flow,” “living in the moment.” These are many ways of saying the same thing… “in the zone.” Listening. Living in the sound and feeling of the music.

It’s a terrific exercise to play something as simple as a repeated quarter note and get so that it feels like the metronome is touching us as it sounds. If we’re playing well in time with it, it can feel as if the metronome disappears completely after awhile. A meditative state of greater calm and awareness can come over us-the day seems brighter, we hear better, our intonation improves. We feel calm, peaceful, focused and happy. This can-and will-come as the result of practice with the metronome. If the learning of music involves a lot of pain and frustration, those feelings will come through in performance, to the detriment of ourselves and those around us. If you’re still frustrated, break down the passage! Slow it down! Do it until it’s comfortable, so you are able to talk or sing while you do it.

Our instruments are vibrational radiators! They vibrate as we do. If we are in the habit of avoiding our deepest relaxed core, that wellspring of serenity where the true “self” resides, and habitually play with impatience or pain, then our music will reflect that. If, in our practicing, we play the same things over and over, our performance will reflect that as well.

There are points of view that say that all musical expression is valid. Sometimes music can become a standoff of tensions as players are incapable of harmonizing with the groove, the time, or each other-we’ve all experienced this at one time or another. There is a point of view that suggests that all musical performance is compromise and negotiation, or a collaboration of weaknesses. Although that may be the case, if there is someone on the bandstand who is very secure in their technique and their experience of the pulse, they can become the underlying driving force on the bandstand that the other musicians can rely on for constancy. It’s ideal if it’s the bassist who is in that role; chances are the music will feel good.

There are those who argue that performance with a click is not human, that the real “feel” can’t be gottten. My experience is that steady tempo feels the best, and when “how” people are feeling the time (“you’re dragging!” “no, you’re rushing!”) is removed as a point of dispute or negotiation, the music can really take off-if the players have learned to play accurate time with a metronome. Every rhythm player should be able to find a groove, and really get into it, with a metronome. If you have a band full of people with a settled tempo sense, the music can really fly.

It’s a good idea to practice with the idea of eventually hitting settings all over the metronome dial, as well. Each tempo has its own “feel,” and it can be learned. Musicians-particularly bassists-need to develop their repertoire of tempos, and develop the habit of listening intently to the countoff. We often have only 4 beats to find and commit to a solid groove; once it starts, commit! Adjust as needed! We’re only human! Not everybody’s perfect!

For more great lessons from Jon Burr, check out his instructional ebooks