The Built-in Metronome

built in metronome – (noun) a rhythm that is repeated throughout a piece that a student can use to help him or her keep the beat steady.

A metronome is an invaluable tool when learning a piece. But sometimes a student has a hard time working with a metronome (especially if they are a new player). In that case, I look at the particular piece of music to see if there is any kind of repeated pattern in either hand that can also function as a “built in metronome,” something that is repeated at a steady interval.

If a child can identify visually that something is a repeated pattern, then they will more easily be able to identify aurally that something is a repeated pattern, and they can work from there. The easiest of these patterns to identify is a pattern of all quarter notes, which often happens in the left hand of a piece. Then the left hand becomes a metronome. Since most students are taught note values based on the quarter note equalling one beat, it is very easy for a student to hear that a half note would equal two quarter notes, or a whole note would equal four.

In an example like this, I would work on the student’s left hand first, making sure that they listen carefully as they play. Sometimes I may even make them play the notes as evenly as they can first, then unevenly, playing them in pairs of long and short notes (playing the wrong way sometimes helps a student identify the right way).

Sometimes, I even make them play a repeated pattern of quarter notes while we have a conversation, forcing them to concentrate on keeping the beat steady, and also on something completely different. This is actually a good exercise because it is playing the piano, but still so uniquely different that when/if they make a mistake, it is actually cause for a giggle instead of a frustration. And every so often, which I find very interesting, a student will speed up/slow down to match the rhythm of their speech.

Once they can see, hear (and also feel) that the left hand pattern should remain as steady as possible, we start adding the right hand back in. As they start playing it hands together, I will stop them whenever the left hand starts to be influenced by whatever the right hand is doing, which may still happen in spite of all the work we have just done. I tell the student that it is normal – sometimes a change is not immediately apparent – and that they should continue to practice like that at home.

Sometimes a pattern is not so obvious, or not so useful. The left hand may have all whole notes, but whole notes have four beats each and so they are not the best when trying to compare other notes to it. When I can, I try and find some sort of pattern as a point of reference for a student, to help them make sense of a piece of music.