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Should You Practice Jazz With A Metronome?

Should You Practice Jazz With A Metronome?

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. 

One of my former students, Adam Rafferty, who refers to me as his “mentor”, created quite a controversy on many of the internet jazz chat rooms with an article he wrote advising people not to use a metronome when they practice.  He, of course, learned that concept from me when he was my student.

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!

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.

I recall an incident that occurred during the sixties.  At that time a huge controversy started to develop along racial lines with jazz musicians.  A polarization between African American and Caucasian musicians began emerging in which the African American players were complaining that the “white cats” were getting all the gigs and they couldn’t swing.  The incident I recall was an interview in Downbeat Magazine in which the great alto saxophonist, Cannonball Adderley, was asked to comment on this topic.  What he said in essence was that the “black musicians play with a pulse and the whites do not.”  He went on to clarify that “there are exceptions of course.  No one in their right mind would claim that Zoot Simms does not swing.”  Since I was a young aspiring jazz pianist at the time and since my path as a jazz musician actually started with playing with Cannonball in South Florida when I was in high school, I was “crushed” when I read it.  It caused me great anguish and feelings of insecurity at the time, which I eventually got over.  In retrospect I think he had a point to a certain extent, although at the present I believe it has little to do with a person’s race and more to do with keeping time to a “pulse” rather than to a “clock.”  I also believe this is something that anyone from any race is capable of doing.

It appears to me that educators who are proponents of the 2 and 4 metronome practice have little or no regard for the role that “body rhythm” plays in this music.  There are many film clips available on the Internet of jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie performing.  Dizzy was fond of dancing along with the music while his group was performing.  Even while he was playing his own solos one could perceive the way he was patting his foot and moving his body as he played.  All one has to do is try to move that way while a metronome is clicking and see if it works.  I think anyone who attempts this exercise will discover that IT DEFINITELY DOES NOT!

If one observes the way Count Basie pats his foot while playing they will discover this discrepancy even further.

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 was proclaiming how much his playing was improving from the things I was teaching him and how it was producing gigs and income for him.  Then one day he came to a lesson very upset and perplexed.  He claimed the guitar teacher at the university was telling him to do things that ran contrary to what I was teaching him.  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.”

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.

Another observation one must consider is that the metronome was never invented as a tool for practicing.  Its primary purpose was a means of indicating the approximate rate of speed or tempo at which a piece of music should begin.  It was invented during Beethoven’s lifetime and since most proponents of the use of a metronome believe it produces “good time” in musicians who practice to it, one would have to ask does that mean that musicians who preceded Beethoven, such as Mozart, Haydn, Handel, and Bach had “bad time?’

I read where one proponent of the use of the metronome claimed it produces an evenness of notes and perfect timing and technique in music students. It also produces music that hardly anyone wants to listen to in my estimation.  Especially jazz music.  I have been playing since the age of three and began formal study at the age of four.  I can recall that my first teacher had me practicing scales to a metronome, and I must admit that I couldn’t stay with the metronome at first.  At the point that I was able to, however, I knew instinctively as a four year old that I didn’t need that thing any more.  But I do admit that it served a purpose up to that point.  I believe the purpose was muscular coordination however and admit that the metronome was of some value in that regard.  Most jazz musicians attending jazz education facilities have already passed the point of being a four year old without muscular coordination on a musical instrument however.  I strongly believe that practicing jazz to a metronome clicking is tantamount to “swing suicide”.  I know there are those who proclaim that they have “gone way beyond swinging” and that what they are doing is the “new thing.”  I must say, however, that musicians who can’t swing have been around for a long time – way before I was born as a matter of fact and not swinging can hardly be considered “something new.”  Some of what has resulted from this “new thing” has been publicists no longer wanting to take on jazz projects because many publications no longer want to write about today’s jazz due to lack of interest from the public.  Also “jazz festivals” are now featuring artists that are more related to hip hop and R & B than jazz as we used to know it.  And jazz clubs are closing world wide due to a lack of an audience, and the list goes on and on.

As far as producing evenness of notes and great technique I must relate a story concerning Adam Rafferty mentioned earlier.  At one point in his studies with me he asked my advice about how to improve his chops.  I recommended that he practice Hanon exercises and scales and arpeggios while putting a pulse on every note by tapping his foot to every note he played.  The result was a virtuosic technique, which is evident in his playing and attested by any of his many fans and fellow guitarists.  He has a book out on this very subject, which I would highly recommend to all guitarists regardless of the style of music you are playing.

The following is a list of quotes from prominent people in the music world who share many of the same opinions I have stated here:

  • Duke Ellington disdained the “soulless” quality and “continual churning” of certain rhythm sections. Uninspired metronomic time-keeping caused “apathy in the section[s],” he wrote in 1931, and a loss of interest among the musicians whose “performance becomes stodgy and mechanical.”
  • — Joel Dinerstein; Swinging the machine (2003)..
  •  this series of even, perfectly quantized, 16th notes, is no more evocative of samba, than a metronome would be. In fact, this representation neglects what makes up the samba essence in the first place — the swing![1]
  • — Pedro Batista; Understanding the Samba Groove

 

  • Another thing that becomes clear …, is how much the listener’s perception of rhythm differs from the reality of the metronome. While Feuermann’s performances seemed to provide the clearest “feel” of the beat — meaning that to a listener, the rhythm and tempo seemed the most clear and compelling — when trying to set a metronome, one found a slightly changing tempo throughout almost every measure — a constant rhythmic “push and pull” — making metronome indications sometimes recordable only as a range between two or three adjacent markings or as an average. At the same time, other performers … whose performances did not yield to the ear as strong a sense of tempo or rhythm, fit more easily within a specific metronome marking. From this, it is clear that the feeling and perception of rhythm are conveyed much more by the performers choice of emphasis or “pulse” than by strict adherence to any absolute metronomic rhythm.[31]

— Brinton Smith; Thesis about Emanuel Feuermann

 

  • And many recent recordings of pop music demonstrate how music is killed by a metronome for they are as square as a draftsman’s T. For the convenience of recording engineers, each player has to record their part on a separate track while listening to a click track — a metronome — and the clicks are then used to synchronize the tracks while the technicians adjust them to their taste and mix them. I know talented young musicians who can’t do it; we can understand why. Nothing compares with a recording of a live performance in which the players provide each other with the time-framework.[…] if you want to kill a musical performance, give the player a click track! [33]

— James Beament; How we hear music: the relationship between music and the hearing mechanism

  • Hence, also, you realize the folly of imagining that a Metronome can serve as a Time-teacher. You see, the pupil has to learn to play to a pulse-throb of his own making all the while, it is therefore of very little use indeed learning to pay obedience to an outside, machine-made Pulse-throb. And in any case, a Metronome is apt to kill the finer Time-sense implied by Rubato.[28]

— Tobias Matthay (1858-1945); Musical interpretation : its laws and principles, and their application in teaching and performing (c1913)

  • […] early nineteenth century […]. There was little interest in using the metronome to tick all the way through a piece of music. But this is how the device is used by conservatory students today.

— James R. Heintze; Reflections on American music: the twentieth century and the new millennium : a collection of essays presented in honor of the College Music Society by (Pendragon Press, 2000)

  • In general, we think it a great mistake to attempt any metrical adaption of the plain-chant; it shows that the adapter scarcely recognises the difference between the rhythm of oratory and the rhythm of music. Declamation cannot be measured by the beats of a metronome, or by the sequences of accents in a bar; it depends on the sense or the articulate sound of the words or syllables. The plain-chant seems intended to preserve this declamatory rhythm; and therefore any metrical arrangement goes far to destroy its distinctive character.[29]

—   The Rambler, Volumes 3-4, 1860

  • 100 according to Maelzel, but this must be held applicable to only the first measures, for feeling also has its tempo and this cannot entirely be expressed in this figure.[25]

Ludvig van Beethoven

  • I do not mean to say that it is necessary to imitate the mathematical regularity of the metronome, which would give the music thus executed an icy frigidity; I even doubt whether it would be possible to maintain this rigid uniformity for more than a few bars.[26]

— Hector Berlioz; A treatise upon modern instrumentation and orchestration

  • A metronomical performance is certainly tiresome and nonsensical; time and rhythm must be adapted to and identified with the melody, the harmony, the accent and the poetry…[22]
  • Franz Liszt; Letter to Siegmund Lebert (10 Jan. 1870)
  • The musician who relies on metronomic markings has divorced himself from the inner life (which is a rhythmic life) of the music. He is no longer living out the drama from within, or singing the melody with his heart; he is immune to the ‘sortilège’.
[…] rhythm as something organic and unpredictable […]. But there is no doubt that it persists. It lies behind the notorious complaint, heard even from very skillful players, that the metronome ‘sounds wrong’.
  • — Louis Wirth Marvick; Waking the face that no one is (page 12)
  • To be emotional in musical interpretation, yet obedient to the initial tempo and true to the metronome, means about as much as being sentimental in engineering. Mechanical execution and emotion are incompatible. To play Chopin’s G major Nocturne with rhythmic rigidity and pious respect for the indicated rate of movement would be as intolerably monotonous, as absurdly pedantic, as to recite Gray’s famous Elegy to the beating of a metronome.[20]
  • Ignacy Jan Paderewski; There is an immense amount of metrical playing and singing in the world […] : there is too little rhythmic reality. And if you habitually play or sing thousands of metrical phrases without transmuting them into your own rhythms, you will become a metronomical musician[11].
  • — Walford Daviesm, Harvery Grace; Music Worship (1935)
  • How any musician could ever play with a metronome, passes my humble understanding. It is not only an inartistic, but a downright antiartistic instrument.[10]
  • — Constantin von Sternberg; Ethics and aesthetics of piano playing

 

  • Paderewski plays the rhapsodies like improvisations — inspirations of the moment. It is the negation of the mechanical in music, the assassination of the metronome. When ordinary pianists play a Liszt rhapsody, there is nothing in their performance that a musical stenographer could not note down just as it is played. But what Paderewski plays could not be put down on paper by any system of notation ever invented. For such subtle nuances of tempo and expression there are no signs in our musical alphabet. But it is precisely these unwritten and unwritable things that constitute the soul of music and the instinctive command of which distinguishes a genius from a mere musician. [7]

—   Henry T. Finck; Paderewski and his art (1895)

  • The metronome […] a lifeless, soulless machine, cannot express the meaning, the object of inspiration, it cannot be used as a means to develop emotion – guided by a machine the performance is wholly mechanical.[6]
  • As a seasoned clubgoer raised on a healthy diet of DJs who reveled in variations (think mood, tempo, emotion, and rhythm) in the course of one evening, I find most nights out now numbingly boring. I’ve never been fond of DJs whose sets rely on relentless, dare I say monotonous beats. […] metronome-like tracks.[34]
  • — Michael Paoletta; Billboard Sep 22, 2001

 

 

  • — Robert Challoner; History of the science and art of music: Its origin, development, and progress (1880)

 

  • […] using the metronome as a constant guide to ramp up the speed or to keep the rhythm. This is one of the worst abuses of the metronome. […] If over used, it can lead to loss of your internal rhythm, loss of musicality, and bio-physical difficulties from over-exposure to rigid repetition[3]

—   Chuan C. Chang; Fundamentals of Piano Practice

 

  • “Never play with a metronome […] the keeping of absolutely strict time is thoroughly unmusical and deadlike”[36]

—   Josef Hofmann; Piano playing : with Piano questions answered

 

 

 


28 Responses to “Should You Practice Jazz With A Metronome?”

  1. Thanks for spelling out this issue so thoroughly and so pointedly.

  2. Fred Scott says:

    I agree , I have had very few lessons, and was told to practice with a metronome, but never did , but did practice with a drum machine, as far as performing both high and low dynamics, and fast and slower rhythms is what makes the music worth hearing and playing.

  3. […] from the article. Should You Practice Jazz With A Metronome? The entire article is worth consideration though, and a catalyst for discussion. I won't say where […]

  4. Joseph Camilleri says:

    “I have at times used a metronome on 2 and 4. I get depressed when I do it because I rush. Playing with a metronome on 2 and does help.”-Michael Brecker

  5. […] recently came across an interesting blog post written by pianist Mike Longo asking Should You Practice Jazz With A Metronome? Longo’s […]

  6. Jaime says:

    Mr. Longo,
    I’m a guitarist myself and a big admirer of Wes Montgomery. You mentioned him as an example of what swing feels like. Do you know for a fact that Mr. Montgomery did not use a metronome?
    Thank You,
    Jaime

  7. 57twa57pan says:

    Hi Jaime:
    No I do not. However I do know, when I listen to him, that I am not hearing metronomic time and am hearing music played to a pulse. If you want to prove that to yourself put on one of his recordings and see if you can get a metronome to sync up to it. You might try another experiment I have been suggesting lately. Try getting a stethoscope and listen to your heart beating and see if you can get a metronome to sync up to that as well.
    Peace,
    Mike

  8. Ryan Bridwell says:

    I think it varies from player to player. Some people get good time in their muscles and neurons at a young age (through various processes- good practicing, clapping, music in the house, whatever) and it sticks. I know for myself that as an adult beginner my tendency to rush (especially when playing piano in solo situations) is not as evident if I’ve “checked in” with a metronome that week. Just like any other skill, good timekeeping takes maintenance. Metronomes can help, but there’s a balance. It’s also useful to practice being able to speed up or slow down on the fly. Over the years, I notice the most improvement when I play along with recordings. There’s the urgency of staying with the beat that you get from a metronome, along with the human ebb and flow.

  9. Ryan Bridwell says:

    The best thing for pulse of course is to actually play with a great drummer/rhythm section night after night, week after week, year after year, like all the great Jazz founders did. That’s an experience that is harder to come by in this world.

  10. 57twa57pan says:

    Thanks for the comments Ryan. I think the point I have been trying to make is the metronome is not a “beat.” The “beat” you play music with is a pulse. A metronome cannot produce a pulse. The only thing a metronome will produce for a musician who tries to practice to it is frequent bouts with anxiety and self doubt. I have a suggestion. Put your finger on your wrist so that you feel your own pulse and start to count 4/4 with it and then play a tune to that count. This is what it feels like to play with a pulse. To go a step further try getting a metronome to sync up with your own pulse and you will see what causes the anxiety and self doubt.

  11. 57twa57pan says:

    Amen!

  12. Steve Chall says:

    I agree that getting a groove is all that’s important. However, how about a tune like Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” where the rhythm section is Omar Hakim, Nathan East, and Nile Rogers. It’s not strictly a jazz tune, but a groove is a groove, isn’t it? This tune unquestionably grooves, for me and for all the millions who’ve danced to it. However, they played it to a click track, I think. I think that because I can set a[n electronic] metronome to 116, align it with the tune start, and let it go. It’s pretty much in synch to the end. There are lots of similar cooking tunes that were surely recorded with a click. So what’s with that? Thanks for an interesting discussion.

  13. 57twa57pan says:

    Hi Steve:
    If you notice the article asks the question “Should your practice JAZZ to a metronome. I was speaking specifically about the kind of jazz I played with Dizzy or the music Miles and Trane and Cannonball, etc, played. People have been dancing to click tracks for years now. This doesn’t really mean anything. When I first left Dizzy, I was doing a lot of jingle dates here in New York and that was always with a click track and we could make it sound like a groove. But when compared to the kind of Groove that Diz got it was some impotent and stiff stuff. If you have ever seen Diz dance to his music when the rhythm section is playing you can’t move like that to a metronome. An interesting experiment is to turn your hand palm up and put your finger on your inside wrist and feel your own pulse and then imagine what music would sound like played to that beat. You will also notice that you can’t get a metronome to sync up to your own pulse as well. As far as a lot of cooking tunes that were surely recorded with a click, I mentioned in the article that there is a certain kind of music that can come from that and a lot of commercial music has. Especially all the disco stuff a while back that was recorded to a drum machine. Millions of people were dancing to that as well. I don’t know of any jazz music that was ever recorded to a click track or with a drum machine. It is a different kind of groove and so your question “a groove is a groove isn’t it” will not hold up for all music.
    Thanks you for your reply and questions. It is greatly appreciated.
    Best to you,
    Mike

  14. 57twa57pan says:

    I should add to this by saying that when I studied with Oscar Peterson we addressed things related to jazz playing such as temperature; depth of tone; depth of swing; and intensity. All of these are related to the higher forms of jazz playing. Particularly “depth of swing.” I don’t know for sure and I could be wrong but I don’t think Ray Charles’ or James Brown’s music ever used a metronome. The distinction about the word “groove” should be clarified. Once again I am a jazz musician and what I teach is jazz. All grooves are not the same. For example there are polka bands that have their groove as well as country music grooves. I am specifically talking about a jazz groove.

  15. Josh Machiz says:

    I agree to certain extent when working on your feel, but a metronome can be a great tool to check accuracy and progress if you’re trying to work up to a certain tempo.

    It’s also an important skill to be able to play music with a good feel to metronome for recording purposes. If you can’t play to a click in the studio as rhythm section player, you will never get a studio gig outside of jazz.

    It’s important not to shun the metronome completely and just use it wisely.

  16. 57twa57pan says:

    Thanks for your comments Josh. They are greatly appreciated. Being able to make fast tempos was a problem for me at some point but Dizzy showed me how to fix it. It had nothing to do with a metronome however. Dizzy said a metronome will make you play stiff. The DVD III that we just put out has what is called Advanced Exercise #1. As soon as I learned that from Diz I never had a problem with any tempos. I did a bunch of Jingle dates when I first left Diz’s group and they were always to a click track. I didn’t have any trouble with that even though it had a tendency to make me feel sea sick. (: As far as studio gigs outside of jazz, I never wanted nor needed any of those to be honest. I have been a professional jazz musician since the age of 15 and even the jingle dates I mentioned were jazz oriented. I worked for an ad agency called Grant and Murtaugh. John Murtaugh was an excellent jazz saxophonist and his dates were all jazz oriented. I recall playing the Audie Auto commercial and the group consisted of Hubert Laws, Ron Carter, Armando Peratza, and Tony Williams. I understand that some musicians choose to do studio work and that’s fine with me. Different strokes for different folks. Good luck with all of your endeavors.
    Best,
    Mike

  17. Andy says:

    Great article. As a drummer/pianist i think there is an issue with many musicians and rhythmic independence.

    Keep a slow, steady foot tap tempo, then pat your thighs- right hand left hand. Increase the hand tempo until you cant play, while foot tempo stays constant.

    If you can play in a 12 /8 bulerias compas while tapping your foot like this, then you’re good! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fNMTkdXMGK4&feature=youtube_gdata_player

  18. 57twa57pan says:

    Thanks Andy. Greatly appreciated.
    Best,
    Mike

  19. nick says:

    Ouch !
    now i get scared because my jazz teacher asks me to practice saxophone with my two feet tapping on 2 and 4. My question is : what is killing swing ? The click of a metronome (wich i don’t use) or the 2 and 4 tip ? I do that to memorise chord changes and to practice at home without rythm section.
    Love your work, Mike, and started to work on the drum with your DVD n° I and II. Here in France, we could benefit a lot from the spreading of Dizzy’s concepts. I get all itchy when i talk of the things i discover with your teaching and keep talking about it with my friends. I spend also many eveningss feeling ” things happenning” in my fingertips and with the “flow of rythm”. Though i keep struggling a lot as an adult beginners, your work has shed some light and hope on my “rythmic problems”
    Best
    Nick

  20. 57twa57pan says:

    Hi Nick:
    With no disrespect for your teacher, I don’t recommend foot tapping on two and four. For one thing you have to understand where the accent on two and four came from which is the cymbal beat. The old guy’s cymbal beat was Ka Chow chick Ka Chow chick, etc. As you can see, there is something on one and three as well. It just causes the weight to come down on two and four. Just tapping on two and four leaves out half of the beat. Not natural. The Be Bop cymbal beat starts on the fourth beat and sounds like Chip A Ching Chip A Ching, etc. Also Something on one and three with an emphasis on the “A”. Thanks for the kind words about my work. You probably don’t have “rhythmic problems” but rather conceptual problems. I’m sure your teacher is a fine fellow and has much to offer you. It’s just that not too many people are familiar with the origins of the two and four accents.
    Best to you and your teacher.
    Mike

  21. Dixon says:

    I did a recording session recently for TV of ‘get lucky’ and while working out gat parts (which was almost impossible as Nile had overdubbed himself I think at least 3 layers in parts!) I noticed the time slips forward in the chorus and eases back a little in the verse, from memory. Check it out with a nome…

  22. Andrew says:

    Hi Mike,

    I have been practicing the drum exercises from your DVD’s for a year, however I would like your advice on the subject of practicing good time using a just the drums from a music program such as Band in a Box.

    What is your opinion on using a music program for developing good time and in particular playing in time with just the drums, taking into account that the parts were recorded by real jazz musicians, do you see it in the same light as using a metronome?

    Regards,

    Andrew

  23. […] 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 […]

  24. 57twa57pan says:

    I have posted a rather lengthy reply to Dr. Dave Wilkes’s post entitled “More Interesting Insights Into The Debate on the use of a Metronome” which you can check out by scrolling down to page 3 on the main page.

  25. 57twa57pan says:

    Hi Andrew:
    I wouldn’t practice the drum work with any program that is based on metronymic time as the poly-metric aspect of the drum technique won’t work with it.
    Best
    Mike
    PS If you have any questions, etc, you can email me at bebopyo@aol.com

  26. 57twa57pan says:

    It is better than practicing with a metronome.

  27. JB Metronome says:

    […] repost this: Should You Practice Jazz With A Metronome? Personally, I think it's worth pointing out that a metronome cannot: – give you a sense of pulse […]

  28. […] interesting article from Mike Longo about why you should not use the metronome when practicing: Should You Practice Jazz With A Metronome? He specifically contests the use of metronome on 2 and 4 (which I first heard from an Emily Remler […]

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