The metronome. Best friend or worst enemy? We all tend to use the metronome to correct rhythm deficiencies in our playing because it functions as an objective, mechanical observer. Reliable rhythm is like the Sun, if you will, to our own musical solar system. Without rhythm there is still music but that music is chaotic, unpredictable and disorganized. If this is what you are going for then fine, toss that metronome out with last night’s leftover pot roast, however if you would like to play anything from the Baroque, Classical, Romantic and most of the Contemporary eras, a metronome will keep you on track and help establish a consistent beat within which to play impressive scales, runs and impossible rhythmic gestures (Thanks, Mozart!).
What happens when the metronome is gone?
Your best friend abandons you at the most necessary musical moments – the dress rehearsal, the performance, the audition. What then? In these instances you must rely on your own, internal sense of rhythm. It is up to you to find the beat, and keep that beat moving consistently throughout the musical chaos.
There is hope. The most efficient way to practice establishing a reliable internal sense of tempo away from the metronome is by marching in place to the beat. That’s right – good old left foot, right foot, left foot right foot, etc.
In the following exercise your own body functions as a physical metronome and it is therefore up to you to fit the music in your brain to the notes on the page, the technique in your fingers and the beat in your feet.
For this exercise I will use the opening of Mozart’s Concerto in G Major, K. 313.
STEP 1: Speak the rhythms marked in measures 31-34 using the syllables “ta” and “ka” as marked. These syllables represent typical single and double tonging articulations in traditional flute playing.
STEP 2: Stand up and again speak the rhythms marked in measures 31-34 but this time march to the beat, alternating left foot/right foot for each quarter note. What do you notice? Are there rhythms that you naturally rush or drag? What is your body telling you about your internal sense of tempo?
STEP 3: Stand up and again speak the rhythms marked in measures 31-34, this time alternating left foot/right foot for each half note. This method shows how you can use your body to practice emphasizing larger beats. What do you notice about how these collections of rhythms fit into larger beats? Do you rush the 16th notes?
STEP 4: Now that your body and your internal sense of rhythm agree with one another, apply this marching technique to flute playing! Play this entire excerpt, measures 31-44, marching first to the quarter note beat and then to the half note beat. Do your fingers and your internal tempo agree? Where are you rushing the tempo? Where are you slowing down? Are there moments that your feet are moving faster than your fingers?
PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE UNTIL THE TEMPO ESTABLISHED WITH YOUR FEETS MATCHES THE RHYTHM IN YOUR BRAIN AND THE TECHNIQUE ESTABLISHED BY YOUR FINGERS. THIS IS HOW TO ESTABLISH A RELIABLE INTERNAL TEMPO.
This exercise can be applied to pieces by Bach, Taffanel, Griffes, Ibert, and so on. In times when your metronome abandons you or when there is no conductor to show you the way, a strong internal sense of rhythm will keep your technique precise and the beat chugging along throughout technical fireworks and virtuosic creativity.
Your own body is your greatest teacher!