The Lightbulb Moment: Man VS Metronome


Scales, scales, scales. Why does my teacher always make me play scales? If I have to play the C Major scale one more time, I think I’ll puke. And with a metronome? Why can’t I just learn songs and jam with my friends?

Ah, the war between playing and practicing. I know this battlefield well; the metronome is always outnumbered by the CDs on the wall and the songs in my head. The songs appear in droves, with units of ten to fifteen soldiers stacked in front of me in neat plastic cases. They invade my practice space via radio waves and disrupt my concentration. Their forces are mighty and omnipresent, and yet, they clash with one particularly strong and savvy piece of militia: the metronome.

Despite being the underdog, it uses sneaky guerilla warfare to hijack the time I get to spend with my bass. Somehow, my metronome joins forces with my bass teacher and they’ve learned how to send messages back and forth in the form of BPM morse code. The metronome knows that it has been neglected and relays the message: student has not practiced. My teacher finds out, assigns more homework, and begins playing mind games. He knows that I feel guilty about not practicing and likes to point out my weaknesses. I quickly realize that the battle is no longer between the songs and the scales, but between the scales and myself. The songs I wish to learn must be pushed to the back burner and it’s time for me to man the battle station.

Monday: Here I am, bass in hand. I’ve got three scales to play at 126 BPM. Piece of cake. Actually, I should play it faster so that I can impress my teacher and show off how much work I’ve done. I turn the metronome to 132 and begin ripping through the scale. Three notes in and I fumble. My hand can’t keep up. I can barely tap my foot in time. How can this be? I try again, getting almost through the scale, but neglecting my technique as I try to play in time. That certainly won’t do. I’m awful, terrible, a complete failure. I try again and barely survive the test. That’s it, I give up. You win this battle, metronome, but you shall not win the war!

Tuesday: Perhaps I should ease the metronome back to 126. That’s the assignment, after all. I spend a few seconds listening to the metronome, getting the tempo in my head, and tapping my foot in time. This doesn’t seem too difficult! I bring my hands up to the neck and make it halfway through the scale before fumbling, starting over, and making another attempt. I finally make it to the octave, though falter again as I descend. I begin with another scale and unfortunately experience the same thing. It’s time to retreat and return tomorrow.

Wednesday: The weather was not conducive. The sky was the perfect shade of blue, the humidity was non-existent, and there were many things to do at the park.

Thursday: It’s crunch time. I only have until Sunday afternoon and the weekend is quickly approaching. Maybe I should try a slower tempo… slow and steady wins the race, right? I turn the metronome to 100 BPM and give it a go. Success! For the first time, I’ve made it through all three exercises with just a few bad notes. I continue to play the scales at this tempo and finally decide that it’s time to advance. 104, 108, 112. I may have outsmarted the metronome! I prepare to play the scales at 116 and realize that I may have counted my chickens before they’ve hatched. I’m back to flailing about and missing notes. So close, and yet, so far.

Friday: I covered plenty of ground yesterday, so it’s time for a little reward and a day off. After all, it’s the weekend.

Saturday: Okay, it was nice having a day off, but it’s time to get back in the game. Thursday’s slow-and-steady method seemed to work, so I’ll try that again. I play through the scales at 100BMP without any trouble, increase the tempo in small increments, and finally hit 116. I make it through and decide to promote myself to 120. Almost there. Phew, that’s fast. If I can make it to 126 by tomorrow, I’ll be pretty impressed with myself. I play each of the exercises over and over again, despite mistakes and inconsistency. If I put some time in before my lesson tomorrow, I believe I may reign supreme.

Sunday: The final hour before my lesson. I begin slowly again, though I wish I could skip immediately to the faster tempo. It feels like I’m wasting precious time, but I play through the scales with ease and quickly find myself at 120BPM, again. Here it goes, up to 126. I don’t play it perfectly every time, but did manage to run through all of the scales. That will have to do.

I arrive at my lesson and, much to my surprise, have little difficulty playing the exercises. I suppose the adrenaline kicked in and that last hour of practice time really did make a difference! My teacher was quite pleased and gave me kudos for having done the assigned work. “Looks like you’ve figured out how to master the metronome,” he said. “Try making it to 144 for next week’s lesson, and work on the minor scales as well.”

Ah, a musician’s work is never done. We shall meet again, Mr. Metronome, though this time, I’ll be more prepared. I’ll have an effective plan of attack in my back pocket and a better work ethic. I guess this means that I’m learning how to practice.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!

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  1. that bass guy

    There are few things worse than a bassist who can’t count or keep the beat. I know a few creative musicians where I live that have lots of facility and fresh ideas, but they can’t keep a beat. Consequently, the only places they play in public are open jam nights and the like. Without good time you are unemployable as a musician and that is reason enough to practice with a metronome.

  2. Nice story. Being in a band means you’ll have to divide your practice time between technical exercises and rehearsing songs. I hate the boring sound of the metronome, and prefer a rhythm guide with real drum sounds. That said, I almost never practice without a rhythm guide. Keeping time is essential, almost more than staying in tune. ;-)

    • I make the exercises interesting enough, the metronome seldom is 1 2 3 4 when i use it. It’s 2 and 4 or the only eight notes in between, and even every last 16th or last triplet of a beat only so there’s never a click on the beat. You create great awareness that way and every flaw becomes extremely highlighted that way. it might take some time to get used to it, cause on the beat you are all by yourself, and then the click tell’s you immediately right or wrong, If you can make the metronome groove that way, you’re really on! The the benefits are extremely great cause you really learn what playing laid back, on the beat or up front of the beat sounds like. It was thaught to me by e really great player and it made the metronome very interesting in my case.The sound never bored me again since.

      • in fact that’s ‘working’ with a metronome as opposed just plain along with it. A metronome does not groove? You can make it groove that way!