Back in September I wrote a post here on Practicing with a Metronome in response to a blog post by Mike Longo entitled Should You Practice Jazz With A Metronome? While I agree with many of Mike’s points about the cons of metronome practice, my main criticism is his emphatic dismissal of any metronome use at all limits teachers and students by completely removing a potentially useful tool from their bag of tricks.
Since then, Mike and a couple of others (including at least one student of Mike’s) have stopped by with comments to try to further debate the idea that metronome practice will always produce a soulless and stiff feeling pulse. Since many of their comments really don’t address the points I was trying to make and also rely on some fallacious logic, I wanted to write a new post to try to discuss this further. So while this post is superficially about metronome practice, it’s really more about the inconsistent logic we often use to determine what the best teaching methods are for a particular situation.
Here is the main point I would like to make. Dizzy Gillespie once made a point about the role of body rhythm being an important factor overlooked by many jazz educators. He would say that he can tell if a player can really play by observing the way that they pat their foot.
Addressing the above point, I would agree that coordinating our bodies to play is essential. Tapping the foot is an excellent way to get the feeling of the tempo internalized, for example. Even though some classical music teachers discourage this practice, I’m fine with it. Sure, looking up at a stage of a concert band or orchestra where everyone is tapping their foot can be visually distracting, but there are ways to tap your foot that are less obtrusive and if it helps the music sound better I’m willing to let it go. That said, tapping the foot to play isn’t a panacea for tempo or groove problems. Watch enough students tap their foot while practicing a passage and you’ll note that sometimes when they get to a difficult passage they still change tempos – they just change their foot along with their playing.
Furthermore, from a logical standpoint, just because an innovative musician told you that tapping the foot was better than using a metronome to practice doesn’t mean we can believe that it must be correct (see argument from authority). Ideas need to stand on their own merit, not be based on who said them. If a general consensus is found among experts it’s fair to assume that an idea is correct, but in this case the general consensus among musicians and music teachers is that a metronome can be useful at times. Many great jazz musicians advocated practicing with a metronome, including Lennie Tristano, Pat Metheny, Kurt Rosenwinkle, John Patitucci, Dennis DiBlasio, and Hal Crook. Going back and forth about whose expert has the right approach is pointless if you don’t directly address the logic behind these recommendations.
In terms of my opinions concerning practice with the metronome on 2 and 4, one must consider where the 2 and 4 thing originated in jazz. The answer is hand clapping in the black church. If one observes a gospel choir clapping on 2 and 4 and notes the way they are moving their bodies, I defy anyone to prove that a metronome on 2 and 4 can produce that feel or teach a musician how to get that feeling of swing in their playing. In fact I would go so far IMHO to say that musicians who engage in this practice are training themselves to play wrong.
The gospel music sung by African Americans in around the turn of the last century is quite a bit different from the syncopated music we hear today. The texture was largely heterophonic and the music didn’t have the characteristic 2 and 4 accent we associate with jazz.
The historical evolution of the groove that evolved into the swing feeling with 2 and 4 accents is too complex to get into for this essay, but if anyone is interested I suggest that you compare the New Orleans early jazz styles of the 1920s to how it evolved when the music and people migrated up to Chicago. Then compare it to the swing bands from Kansas City and New York. You will be able to hear an evolution of how the groove shifted from a more or less even stress on all four beats to become the standard swing feeling we have today (and of course, you can continue to trace how this groove shifts throughout different style periods).
Regardless, the origins of how a particular musical style evolved doesn’t really say anything about the results that a student might get from a particular practice method. I would agree with Mike that if you don’t spend time performing with great musicians who have a steady pulse and soulful groove you’re not going to be able to pick this up by playing along with a metronome. That doesn’t mean that at times in individual practice that a metronome is going to harm your ability to swing. Certainly if you never practice without a metronome you’re missing the point. And it’s certainly possible for some musicians to achieve a solid swing feel without ever needing to turn on a metronome. None of that really addresses whether or not a metronome may be useful for certain issues in a student’s personal practice.
As far as teaching how to keep good time, it is my contention that a metronome is not the kind of time music is played to. Is there an alternative?
There is no question that there are alternative methods to teaching a student to keep good time without using a metronome and that these approaches have value. What I’m arguing against is limiting our teaching to only one approach.
The other issue I have with Mike’s point here is that practicing with a metronome isn’t so much about teaching good time, but for providing feedback to a student who isn’t keeping good time.
I’ve found that most students, even the beginners I work with, are quite capable of keeping a steady pulse just by clapping or tapping their foot. But music students will often find their time to suffer when they have too much to think about at the same time. We really can’t keep our attention on more than one or two things at a time and if one thing isn’t completely internalized it can suffer when our focus is pulled away from it. As an example, students who don’t have the tempo internalized will often rush when the music gets louder or more rhythmically active. It’s also quite common for musicians to drag when playing softer and when the texture gets less active. I’ve found it quite helpful to use a metronome in these cases to help students become more aware of the tempo in these situations because the click provides them with instant feedback when they start changing their tempo. Likewise, when a passage becomes a challenge for the musician’s technique it’s very common for the tempo to slow down. Using a metronome that will accent certain beats in a metric pattern or a basic click on 2 and 4 can be used for feedback on whether or not they are dropping beats, which can be common when students are reading very challenging lines. Learning to play very challenging passages at a fast tempo can be learned very efficiently by using a metronome to start very slowly and gradually speeding up the tempo until the passage can be played correctly as fast as desired.
Is it musical to play with a metronome this way? Not really. That’s not the point of the exercise. Music students practice all sorts of things that have little musical value (Hanon finger exercises, long tones, scales, chord arpeggios, technical etudes, etc.). The purpose is to get whatever you’re working on so comfortable that you no longer have to think about it and can concentrate on playing musically when it counts.
Or another approach you can think of is if you can groove with a metronome click, think of how hard you’ll swing when you turn it off and jam with live musicians.
This was instigated by a prominent psychotherapist in that area by the name of Andrew Schoenfeld along with saxophonist Benny Wallace, both of whom were private students of mine at one point. As a matter of fact, Mr. Schoenfeld has been using the drum technique with his patients with a great amount of success and even has reported curing some of bipolar disease with it.
I tend to avoid discussing medical issues here and when I do I always want to lead with the statement that I am not a medical professional and in no way should anything I say be taken for medical advice. Nor should you assume that anything I write about health is correct. Check with your family doctor or another medical professional. Never get your medical advice from the internet.
Now that that’s out of the way, let me first state that Mike’s portrayal of Mr. Schoenfeld’s social work as “curing” bipolar disorder is most likely a great exaggeration. The National Institute of Medical Health statement on bipolar disorder says:
Bipolar disorder cannot be cured, but it can be treated effectively over the long-term.
However, I’m a big advocate of research-based music therapy and I think that it’s certainly plausible that musical activities can be used to help individuals with bipolar disorder treat the symptoms they live with.
All that aside now, what does music therapy have to do with practicing with a metronome? If medical treatments constituted as evidence for what is best for musical practice then there is likely more evidence for using a metronome than not. A cursory search through medical literature available online shows that a metronome has been found to be helpful for treating symptoms of stuttering, Parkinson’s disease, ADHD, hypertension, walking issues due to a stroke, and much more. None of this really says anything about whether or not we might find a metronome to be helpful in certain musical teaching situations.
Since the field of jazz academia, to my knowledge, is presently unaware of these principles I feel it necessary to call attention to this statement. “in determining best practice for teaching it’s been shown that a more scientific outlook will produce better, more consistent results with our students” This leads me to ask the question, “Science based on what?” I would consider what Diz made reference to be in fact Science. Maybe not as defined in the world of academia but surely in the world of professional jazz by the people who play it and teach it from that perspective.
We can’t redefine words like “science” to mean whatever we want it to in order to support an agenda. If it helps, reword my statement to say that “research based methods will produce more consistent teaching.” Research done correctly applies certain controls to a particular hypothesis (i.e., metronome practice will automatically produce a stiff feeling groove) and attempt to falsify your idea. You don’t do science by looking for evidence that supports what you believe, you attempt to shoot it down. If it withstands the scrutiny, then you’re perhaps on to something.
The reason we go through this effort in teaching is because of the cognitive bias that we all have.
“Cognitive Bias????” For one thing the music played by Dizzy Gillespie and his followers does not involve the mind. It comes from a place behind the mind… A “magical” place, if you will, and a place, IMHO, that practicing jazz with a metronome will render a student unable to ever achieve.
I’m a fan of using poetic language to help convey musical concepts to my students too, but ultimately I try to recognize when I’m speaking metaphorically and when I’m being precise. If you want to teach that music is outside of the mind and from a magical place, that’s fine, but you can’t invoke this as evidence because it is patently not true.
Since you accused me of “creating another false dichotomy” at the beginning of your article and since you are unaware of these principles your statement appears to me to be the result of projection. Who then is “fooling themselves?” Further I don’t see where this dichotomy you perceive is false but very real IMO.
I think perhaps I’m not being very clear on explaining my thoughts on metronome practice, but I also think that possibly Mike does not understand what a “false dichotomy” is. This logical fallacy is created when a situation is manufactured where only two extreme positions are listed as the only viable options, leaving out the possibility for a combination of both or other additional options.
I have never stated here or on my other post that I think metronome practice is the be all and end of learning to play with good swing. In fact, I have acknowledged many times that Mike’s points about the detriments of relying on a metronome should be kept in mind. The false dichotomy Mike has created is that because of the drawbacks to metronome practice exist there are no situations where a metronome might be helpful. The fact that one can get by without a metronome doesn’t mean that careful and correct use of a metronome at times might not be helpful. Nor does my recommending that a metronome can be helpful mean that I don’t think other approaches have validity and aren’t worth exploring.
Students are infinitely variable. Some students will need different approaches or explanations to grasp the same concepts. Anyone who has taught for long enough will also be familiar with how the exact same student can sometimes respond great to one method only to require changing our instruction up at another time. As I’m fond of saying here, if the only tool in our toolbox is a hammer every problem begins to look like a nail.
This leads me to another of your statements: “we musicians are trained to trust our feelings, experiences, and intuitions. This is a good thing because it helps us become better musicians.” To me, feelings, experiences and intuitions without reality can be very misleading and furthermore if exposed to one of Dizzy’s revelations can change in an instance.
Again, this misses my point about cognitive bias and research based methods. Mike is taking his personal experiences and making the leap to assume that his own background must be true for everyone. I can also list some personal experiences that contrast his. Which of us should one believe? Neither, without making an effort to remove our personal agendas from the equation.
One of Mike’s students, Angelo, made the same logical error:
I would like to offer my background and personal experience with Mike for you consideration.
. . .
I started studying music theory with a teacher, and for the first time in my life, used a metronome.
. . .
Years later I was living in New York City and looking to study composition and arrangement. After meeting with numerous teachers that were presenting me with the same common material over and over, I was given Mike’s name and number. When I met with him for my first lesson I immediately knew I had found what I was looking for. His approach to music was a revelation to me and at the end of my first lesson I asked if I should use a metronome when practicing. His response was “Why would you do that?” As he explained the difference between a click and a pulse feel I immediately recognized what had happened to me years earlier with the drummer and bass player.
I was only studying with Mike for a short while when I got together with a friend that I’ve been playing with for over 30 years. . . He immediately recognized a difference and improvement in my playing.
Now in no way do I want anyone to think that I’m disparaging what Mike taught you. There is definitely a benefit to this approach and in fact I would also agree that it’s essential for developing a good time feel and groove. That said, this is a common fallacy that I hear many folks make all the time. Here it is again, this time made by Mike.
A guitar student who came to me three months ago a nervous wreck because he claimed he had a “time problem.” It turned out his former teacher had him practicing with the metronome on 2 and 4 and he was getting put down by all of the musicians with whom he was playing, particularly a Brazilian drummer, and losing gigs. He came to his lesson yesterday and related to me that the drummer shook his hand after the gig the night before and called him Maestro.
It’s very common for musicians to say variations on the above. You will frequently here someone say something like “I practiced X over and over and didn’t get better. It wasn’t until I forgot about X and went to Y that I suddenly found my way.” What this completely forgets is that X might just have been a necessary step along the progression. Going back to what I wrote far above in this post, using a metronome might not have developed good time, but could just have helped the student internalize certain issues to the point of where forgetting all about the metronome click and going on to something else would be that much more beneficial. This may not always be the case for all situations, but it’s an important area to consider when we’re trying to determine the best way to help a student.
Testimonials, like those above, may be very good for selling books and DVDs, but their anecdotal nature make them extremely unreliable as real evidence. No matter how many positive testimonials you have, they still can’t be used in research-based approaches because of the inherent bias they carry.
I might also mention that the metronome wasn’t invented until Beethoven’s time so I feel sorry for all those sad musicians before him who must have had time problems including Bach, Mozart, Handel, and on and on.
In any honest discussion I think it’s important to only address points actually made by those we’re debating. Creating a “straw man argument” against which you can easily refute doesn’t benefit anyone. I never said that a metronome is the only way to develop good time feel. Again, this is a false dichotomy by reducing my argument to using a metronome is the only way and Mike’s way must therefor be ineffective. I actually advocate a combination of both metronome use for certain situations and then always moving on to internalizing the time feeling and concentrating on musical expression.
There is a story about Beethoven smashing the metronome against the wall and proclaiming, “This is not music!” This was related to me by a musician so I am not sure is it is a true story but if it is Beethoven was surly an extremist.
This story is almost certainly apocryphal. Beethoven was known for writing metronome markings in his music, so he was certainly not opposed to using one for the purpose of finding tempos. Additionally, while the metronome was invented around from the early 1700s, by the time that Johann Maezel patented it in 1815 Beethoven was almost completely deaf and wouldn’t have been capable of hearing a metronome click. Furthermore, Mike is again creating a straw man by implying I feel a metronome click to be musically expressive. It’s not. Or at least not unless you count pieces like György Ligeti’s Poème Symphonique for 100 Metronomes.
Since you have not bothered to check out where I am coming from you undoubtedly will continue to consider me to have an extreme perspective.
I want to reiterate that I don’t find Mike’s alternative to metronome practice extreme or something to avoid altogether. What I find extreme is his dismissal of any other approach as having some validity. Again, there are many different approaches that music teachers can take according to the situation and needs of the individual student and it’s my contention that the best teachers are able to draw from a variety of approaches.
As far as pros and cons of metronome use I will say that there is an alternative approach with evidence to back it up that has led me and students to conclude that there are no pros.
Simply because alternative approaches exists and that these methods are helpful doesn’t mean that we should automatically dismiss the metronome. There are definitely good reasons for avoiding a metronome at times, but there is a vast majority opinion among musicians and music teachers that a metronome, when correctly used for specific issues, can be quite effective for helping a student work out problems that cause time issues.
For anyone who is curious exploring ideas on how to best use a metronome, a good general discussion can be found on the Wikipedia entry on metronome practice. I’ll close this post by quoting a passage from this entry, with my bold emphasis to illustrate my basic point.
The “intuitive” approach to metronome practise, is to simply play your music along with a metronome. With metronome technique however, musicians do separate exercises with a metronome to help strengthen and steady their sense of rhythm, and tempo; and increase their sensitivity to musical time and precision. Only occasionally do you play your music with a metronome, to deal with particular issues. It is entirely possible that you never play your music with a metronome at all.