I recently came across an interesting blog post written by pianist Mike Longo asking Should You Practice Jazz With A Metronome? Longo’s reply:
In MHO, absolutely not! Why? Because a metronome clicking is not a pulse. What is a pulse anyway? The sound of your heart beating. It produces a throbbing, pumping kind of feeling as opposed to the monotonous, soulless clicking of a metronome. All of the great jazz musicians of the past such as Dizzy, Charlie Parker, Cannonball, John Coltrane, Erroll Garner, etc., display this kind of sound in their time keeping.
He raises some very good points that are worth some serious consideration. That said, I feel some of his reasoning is a little off base and creates another false dichotomy of the sort that pervades so much music pedagogy. Let me take a few of his points and add my own thoughts.
There is a practice among some of the jazz educators to encourage musicians to practice with the metronome clicking on 2 and 4. In my estimation this is probably one of the worst things a musician can do and practically destroys the ability to ever swing. I’m sure there is no malicious attempt on the part of the educators, and they sincerely believe they are “helping” students by having them do this. The sad thing is there is a type of playing and a kind of “music” that can result from this. The question becomes…does it swing? Does it produce a positive reaction in the listener? In other words, does it make people who listen to it feel good? In my opinion, ABSOLUTELY NOT!
As someone who has played along with a click track for recording and for shows that include prerecorded music I agree that this often makes for a stiff feeling groove. That said, there are some folks who really enjoy music that has been recorded with metronomic time and a lot of interesting music has been created this way. I think that Longo’s opinions about music made with a metronome should be placed into the context of the jazz music that he personally enjoys and performs.
But is it really the worst thing one can do? Will it destroy a musician’s ability to play with a confident and natural swing feel? Let’s examine his arguments.
Since this is a common practice being used in many jazz education environments and since the popularity of jazz has diminished in alarming proportions, I suggest that educators might want to question if there might be a connection.
Probably not. Consider how much pop music is recorded and performed with a click track. One might argue that the decline of interest in jazz is inversely proportional to not having metronomic time. I don’t this really applies to a discussion on the pedagogical or practice value of using a metronome.
Longo’s next couple of paragraphs deal with a discussion of watching musicians dance or tap their foot while performing. He argues that one can’t dance like Dizzy Gillespie or tap a foot like Count Basie to a metronome. I’m not sure that this is necessarily true (I can’t dance to either a metronome or Basie both, to be honest), nor does it really say anything about whether practicing with a metronome is useful. There’s also some thoughts about whether white musicians can groove as hard as African American musicians by Cannonball Adderly, but I’m not certain that this is evidence against metronome practice. It’s probably more due enculturation than anything else.
I had a young guitar student who was studying privately with me while attending a university jazz department trying to get a degree in jazz performance. . . He reported that the guitar teacher showed him a clip on You Tube of a guitarist playing a solo while placing the microphone on the floor next to a metronome clicking on 2 and 4. I observed this clip and found that the playing displayed a tremendous amount of technique with speed and velocity as well as a ton of notes. But it was not producing anything I wanted to listen to, nor did it swing. The student proclaimed that the teacher told him, “This is why you should practice with the metronome on 2 and 4” to which I responded by sending the teacher a clip of Wes Montgomery and his group playing “Impressions” with the drummers high hat popping on 2 and 4 in a manner that started your foot tapping involuntarily from the first bar on. I sent a note along stating, “This is why you shouldn’t practice that way.”
I will let you judge for yourself if Metheny swings and if there’s anything worth listening to, but we need to place this video in context. Metheny isn’t really performing here, he is demonstrating something at a clinic. Again, I think that Longo’s thoughts here are more indicative of his personal preferences in music than what metronome practice can do for your playing.
Further evidence that supports that there is a ring of truth to my theory is the following. Try taking any classic jazz recording that has withstood the test of time and has everyone agreeing on the fact that it swings and see if you can get a metronome to stay with the music on that recording. Obviously you cannot, and obviously the musicians were keeping time differently than the way a metronome clicks.
This is indeed a difficult task to accomplish. It’s much easier to use a metronome that you click or tap that tells you what tempo it is moving at and see if the tempo remains steady throughout. Musicians often play at tempos that are between the standard metronome clicks and even if they played in perfect time it would be impossible to set your metronome to the music. That said, it is true that there are almost always minor fluctuations in the tempo with human musicians. It’s part of what makes the music breathe and flow in an expressive way. But do musicians who practice with a metronome do any better at staying with perfect time when recording without a click track?
As an aside, I recently recorded a few big band charts with just four musicians, so used a click track to keep all the parts lined up correctly. When editing the recordings I noticed that many of the players, myself included, frequently played ahead of or behind the beat at times. There were times when this happened where I was able to clean up the sound by edging the notes forward and backwards a bit, but when I perfectly quantized the music to line up exactly the resulting sound was very stiff and artificial sounding.
But I feel the real question to consider is whether or not metronome practice needs to be all or nothing. What does a metronome provide for your practice? It’s good at two things – getting your tempo correct in the first place and then providing feedback as to whether your tempo is remaining consistent. I prefer to think of a metronome as a “spotter” for your time feel. Once you’ve reached a point where you have a good idea of your tempo and have consistent tempo on the music you’re playing you turn the metronome off. Can a musician develop a static and unmusical groove by overpracticing with a metronome? Perhaps, but I don’t think that this happens to any great degree. On the other hand, the feedback that metronome practice can provide to musicians, particularly less experienced ones or even experienced ones working on challenging material, makes for a valuable tool. In my daily teaching (and performing, to a lesser degree) I come across more cases of musicians who drag or rush than players with a stiff groove.
If you can swing with a metronome click as your “rhythm section,” just think of how hard you will swing with a real one.
What are your thoughts? Do you feel that it’s better to never practice with a metronome or use it frequently? Or do you find that the best approach is somewhere in the middle of the two extremes? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.