Metronome – When to Not Use One

August 14th, 2014

metronome-when-not-to-use-oneDon’t get excited. It’s a rare thing. Turning off the metronome is for professionals only. That is unless a professional told you to turn it off. If you’re a beginner musician, leave your metronome on. If you’ve been playing a while and can keep fairly steady time, this is where a metronome just might be holding you back from progressing.

The traditional argument (and it’s a good one) is that if you can’t keep you part together with something predictable and solid, how are you possibly going to keep your part together with another person? That’s what Mommy told me in the 6th grade, and she was absolutely right. If you can’t keep it together with a metronome, you can’t keep it together with anything. But once a musician gets to a certain level of time keeping proficiency, there is a time to set it aside. There’s another aspect to metronome practice that can actually hold a musician back; aligning your body with itself.

The metronome is an external thing that each musician internalizes in order to all be on the same page. Each beat should be exactly as far away from the previous one so that everyone agrees on when to play the next note. But there are tiny details that have nothing to do with the metronome that get overlooked. Details that occur between each note outside of the pulse and they must occur in a certain sequence in order to be correct. For example, On a woodwind instrument, the throat position must change a split second before the fingers. Otherwise the next note will have a weak and anemic attack. A metronome might get in the way of learning this technique.

Turn Off the Metronome: An Example From Percussion


Rudiment Rock-It

Drum rudiments should almost always be practiced with a metronome. But there comes a time when a percussionists weaker hand becomes conditioned to be satisfied with not being as powerful. Their single stroke roll becomes permanently swung. Their double stroke roll is sloppy with a consistent decrescendo between the four taps. A metronome hides that defect from a student. Yes, leading left helps, but it doesn’t fix all of the problems. At some point, the parts of a person’s internal striking mechanism must be aligned to itself. A metronome will get in the way. Turn it off. Play the singly stroke roll slowly. Speed it up. Slow it down. Let yourself go into a sort of trance by focusing on the sound you’re making. Play at speeds you are comfortable with until you can’t figure out which hand is making which sound. Do the same with the other rudiments. You have already internalized the symmetrical proportion of time. You have mastered it. Trust your intuitive judgment, turn off the metronome, and efficiently make your weak hand stronger. Then turn it back on to see how much faster you’ve become in the past five minutes. It works, I promise.

rudiment-rock-it-no-metronomeThanks to Rudiment Rock-It, beginners can now use this technique too. Teachers need not be worried about students developing bad habits. The game allows the player to speed up, but keeps track of the time passed between each tap. If the player becomes unbalanced in their timing, the rocket crashes and they lose. But before they crash, the game gives them a chance to slow down and regroup to try to win. So the gameplay encourages perfect and efficient practice without a metronome. There has never been a more fun or efficient way to learn the basic rudiments of percussion.

This game is so efficient because it applies this theory of a metronome getting in the way of a musician’s body aligning with itself. Instead of an outside force beating a student into submission, the game tells the player what their striking mechanism is actually doing. A persons hands align themselves to each other without needing to think about the outside influence of a metronome, and one problem can be dealt with at a time.

Practicing with a metronome still solves the majority of timing problems. However, any problem that has to do with a person’s body sequencing events with itself might be better dealt with using alternate methods.

There will be more games like this. Stay “tuned.”

Lifelong Learners – You’re Not Too Old to Learn Music

August 8th, 2014


Too often older folks tell me that they have no musical talent what-so-ever. This is usually in the context of discussing my own musical abilities. I appreciate the compliments (don’t we all). Compliment me further and ask to be taught! This is actually very important for the same reason that it is important to learn music in a person’s early years. The key to being a lifelong learner is knowing how to learn. Music teaches us this skill.

A lifelong learner probes and prods every detail in an object. They look at a broken appliance, figure out how it works, and fix it themselves. They look at a programming language and study it rather than declaring it to be magical. A lifelong learner listens to music, and starts asking questions about how it’s done. It’s not enough to appreciate beauty. They want to know why its beautiful. They want to make it themselves, and this is a wonderful thing.

Music is for the Lifelong Learner

Music is a marvelous way to teach us how to be curious. It teaches us how to listen. It’s not possible to reproduce a sound you haven’t listened to. Lifelong learners are sponges. They soak up all of the information around them and in all of its forms. The arts in general are a raw form of teaching the skill of observation and emulation. It forces the learner to make seemingly arbitrary connections. “How will adding blue to this spot of the canvas create beauty.” But it does, and learning happens. This sort of intuitive knowledge is what grants the ability to manipulate the world around us. Lifelong learners reconstruct illogical data in a way that is beautiful and useful.

Are you a lifelong learner who doesn’t know music? Probe into the raw materials of creative thought. You’re not too old to learn music. You can start here.

Double Stroke Roll – Lessons from Rudiment Rock-It

August 1st, 2014

double-stroke-rollIn percussion technique, a double stroke is two rapid taps in a row from one hand. The double stroke roll is two rapid taps from each hand consecutively, back and forth. This can yield a much faster speed than the single stroke roll, but only when done cleanly and correctly. Two problems have to be overcome. The weaker hand needs to be able to perform a double stroke roll as quickly as the dominant hand. Then, the second tap from each hand needs to sound just as strong as the first tap. While there are some tricks to be learned with sticks, the most important part of the technique is the raw ability to tap like a machine! The second pattern in Rudiment Rock-It develops this skill in a unique and entertaining way.

Buddy Rich knew how it’s done! Skip to 1:00 in the video.

The game measures the amount of time taken between each tap. It then penalizes inconsistency by making the rocket off course. Going too far off course results in the rocket leaving the screen and the player loses. Also, the amount of displacement differs depending on whether the first or the second tap is being performed. Otherwise only the first tap from each hand would need to be consistent. The game forces the player to be steady all around.

As for the problem of the strength of each tap, the game keeps the player honest by touch screen limitations. If a tap isn’t strong enough it is generally because the stick or hand didn’t come far enough off of the drum to make a good sound. It’s the same when tapping a mobile device. If the player’s hand doesn’t get enough distance from the screen to detect a release, it will not respond the second time. The rocket will quickly begin to go off course. But the player has the opportunity to slow down and regroup before they lose entirely. This is extremely useful for getting overconfident students to slow down and practice correctly!

Single Stroke Roll – Lessons From Rudiment Rock-It

July 30th, 2014

The Single Stroke Roll is deceptive because it’s very easy to learn but takes years to master. Everyone has done it before at some point. A drum roll to prepare for an announcement. Tapping along to a sweet song. Nervously waiting for something. It’s just tapping back and forth. Easy. Until you’re forced to do it evenly and quickly. Us right handers hastily realize how stupid our left hands are, and left handers gloat over their obvious (but not complete) dominance o’re our lesser evolved species.

Evelyn Glennie knows how it’s done! Skip to 4:00 in the video.

A problem I’ve encountered as a teacher is that students genuinely perceive that they are even and steady. Even with a metronome! And yet the student is obviously executing a perfectly swung 32nd note and just doesn’t know the difference. Rudiment Rock-it will quickly drive this from a student of percussion (or music in general). Any unevenness in tapping each side of the mobile device will be met with losing the game very quickly.

Single Stroke Roll – Slowly and Correctly


The object of the game is to get the rocket to the top of the screen without allowing it to touch the sides of the screen. The game keeps track of the time between the right and left taps. If the time is unequal, the player is penalized by going off course. If the player notices that they are off course, they have the opportunity to slow down and regain control before going off of the screen. They can then make another attempt at playing the single stroke roll quickly and evenly enough to win at the selected difficulty (levels 1-99).

Initially, only the first 20 difficulty levels are available. If the player wins, higher difficulties and new patterns are unlocked. This gives the game a challenge that encourages the player to continue becoming proficient at the selected pattern. There has never been a better way to get a student to practice the single stroke roll!

Offbeat or Upbeat? – An Ambiguous Disambiguation

July 24th, 2014

When talking about the adjective versions of each word, it quite obvious what the difference is. When something is offbeat, its strange or unseemly. A search for the word yields synonyms such as “funny” and “weird.” Upbeat is peppy and cheerful! Ambiguity of either makes for some cheeky musical humor.

Musically the two words are actually related to their respective adjective forms. Offbeat is most often a criticism of accuracy. It’s a very broad musical term that literally means “off the beat”. You can refer to a specific one in some cases: the second sixteenth note in beat three would be considered an offbeat. But really, an offbeat can mean any part of the beat that’s not on the beat. This includes all of the wrong places to play a note. So when your music instructor says that you are offbeat, it’s probably not a good thing. Or even worse (or better for some of us), you’re just an odd creature who’s also inaccurate. But don’t take it too personally. Everyone’s offbeat in both ways at the same time at some point in their life. Just check out this trombonist’s sneeze. Offbeat and offbeat. It happens to the best of us. (Cheeky, yeah?)

upbeat-bird-is-not-offbeatUpbeat is more specific. An upbeat is always an offbeat, an offbeat is not necessarily an upbeat, an upbeat is never offbeat, and offbeats are rarely upbeat. Upbeat refers to a moment as far away from two downbeats as possible. Tap your foot. Clap. Tap again. Clap. Tap. You’re clapping upbeats (unless you’re offbeat). Sometimes upbeat can also refer to the imaginary offbeat an upbeat conductor gives to give his offbeat musical group to come in on the downbeat (or sometimes the next upbeat if the offbeat group is playing very upbeat music).

On that note, take a look at Upbeat Bird which is only as off the beat as you make it.

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