Is using a metronome part of your practice routine? It is a valuable tool for helping us understand rhythm and to play with rhythmic accuracy. Here is how a metronome can be useful in practicing traditional music.
Practice consistent timing: When we play through tunes alone, we may not realize that our timing is not consistent. We may speed up or slow down. A metronome helps us identify when and if there is some specific passage in the tune that makes us speed up or slow down. For students learning strathspeys for the first time, I find metronomes particularly useful. Strathspey rhythms are very complex with dotted eighth notes followed by sixteenths or vice versa, along with 16th note passages and triplet passages. It can be tricky to make sure the timing of all of these is perfect. Its common if you are not used to listening and playing strathspeys to not hold the longer notes, like dotted 8ths and quarter notes for their full value. A metronome helps identify these spots and play them consistently with good time
Practice difficult passages: If you notice that you are stumbling over the same part of a tune, pull it out and practice that phrase only with the metronome, first at a slower speed and then gradually work your way to full tempo. Don’t turn up the notch on the metronome until you feel confident with the passage. You don’t want to develop the muscle memory of feeling rushed.
Practice being relaxed: In my own playing, I sometimes notice that I am rushing or playing ‘on top of the beat’. My playing feels like its anxious and ‘on edge’. I notice this in particularly difficult tunes. So when I practice these tunes, I’ll put the metronome on a marking which is at little slower pace than what I would usually play the tune and really listen to where my notes are falling in relation to the beat. Are they falling right with the ‘click of the metronome’ or just a hair ahead? During the process I’m very conscious of playing relaxed. Then when I go back to play the tune at its regular tempo, my playing feels much more settled.
Practice on pulse and off’ pulse: I find this particularly a good practice for reels. Notice that there is a different in the word ‘pulse’ and ‘beat’. Reels are in 4/4 time but we do not feel each of the four beats per measure. Generally, we tap our foot to the 1 and the 3. These are the strong beats in the measure and what is referred to as the ‘pulse’. So to put that in terms of a metronome, a reel is played somewhere around 216 beats per minute. To mark the pulse, divide that in half and set the metronome to about 108. That will give you the pulse. Instead of just practicing on the 1 and the 3 where we normally tap our feet, try turning that around and play to the click on the second and fourth beat. This will give you a different feel and promote very consistent timing.
I hope you find these tips useful to work on your timing. Remember though, that practicing with a metronome is only one piece of the puzzle. A metronome cannot teach musical expression. So practicing with recordings and listening to live music is also important. But practicing with a metronome can help us better express our music through consistent timing.