A Matter of Timing

When to use a metronome

I often get asked by my students, “should I buy a metronome?”

I really shouldn’t discourage them from doing so, but my first reaction is to always say, “no, not yet. First you have to actually feel where the beat is for yourself.”

Don’t get me wrong, metronomes are absolutely essential for ensuring absolutely perfect timing, but when a bars worth of semiquavers show up, I’m not going to expect the student to storm through it, and I certainly don’t expect them to slow the entire piece down on account of some quick notes.

The key thing here is pulse, and pulse changes. It’s rubato, flexible tempo, and the real skill to be learnt is the ability to be flexible with pulse, know where it is, and adjust the rhythms accordingly. If the music says Andante, they should start tapping out a steady walking pace, slow down when the music gets difficult, then gradually speed back up to andante again.


The most important musical skill to learn before all others, is coordination. Without a doubt, those who struggle with pulse are those that just can’t tap their foot along with the music that they’re listening to or playing. Sometimes their foot just has a mind of its own, whether it be because the foot is trying to tap the rhythm, or its just floating around. What’s worse, is that the student doesn’t even realise they’re doing it.

This is where the teacher comes in. They’re duty bound (within reason) to prevent the student practicing incorrectly (because perfect practice makes perfect).

At this point, I’ll acknowledge that tapping in time with the music is actually a few steps beyond the absolute basics, so here are the steps from nothing to something.

Building Rhythmic Competency

Clapping crotchet beats

At a nice slow speed, get the student to clap their leg/thigh (I use this rather than clapping hands together because it frees up the other hand). Even this can prove a challenge for some students, evident by a fluctuating speed. They won’t believe you, so this is where the metronome comes in.

Introduce a foot tap

Get the student to clap their thigh and tap their foot at the same time. Perfect unison and at a steady speed.


Subdivision is so important it probably deserves its own post. With the foot continuing to beat crotchets, get the hand to now tap out quavers. Sometimes this will totally blow a student’s mind. If this happens, start really slow and by slow I mean…

  • Tap both the foot and hand at the same time. Stop. Stop!
  • Tap just the hand by itself with the foot staying where it is. “No, not the foot. Leeeeaaave it. Good. Just the hand” **tap**
  • Tap both the foot and the hand at the same time again
  • Now just the hand
  • repeat

At this point I’d recommend getting the hand to clap semi-quavers. If the student just can’t get the foot+hand combo going, perhaps one hand doing crochets and the other hand doing quavers.

Foot taps to music

Yes, tapping while performing should be avoided (and who hasn’t seen musicians in a concert band tapping to completely different timings. How does that even happen?), but tapping the foot while practicing is an important skill to have. Doing this, I believe, is one of the most important skills of any musician. It doesn’t have to be ‘in time’, the foot just has to land where the strong beat is. In 4/4, this is a foot tap at the beginning of every crotchet.

Think of it like this. The crotchet pulses are the pillars to which all the notes fit on or around. If notes are not on one of those pillars, then you a just passing through them; they’re inconsequential. They’re not important, the pulse is what matters.

The foot must land on those pillars. It’s imperative.

Now, I’m going to drastically simplify this next steps, but essentially the student, as they play, has to aim for each pillar. Because they have foot taps and can now physically sense when the next pillar is supposed to arrive, they will have a better chance of reading the corrects lengths (ratios) of the notes that take them from one pulse/beat/pillar to the next.

Subdivide, Subdivide, Subdivide

I like to use the following to help students with their spacings.
crotchets: 1, 2, 3, 4.
quavers: 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &
semiquavers: 1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a (or cat-a-pil-la)
triplets: 1 & a 2 & a 3 & a 4 & a (or el-e-phant)

Usually the speed of the semiquavers comes as a bit of a surprise.

Final Thoughts

Yes, the metronome is useful, especially if you’re playing the 4th movement of Saint Saens’ Clarinet Sonata in E flat major where one has to get those semiquavers perfectly uniform, but for a student that needs to know what (not just where) a beat is, the pressure of using a metronome while they play is not going to help. There is greater benefit in getting them to set their own pulse and be able to speed up and slow down appropriately. The coordination they develop by getting their foot to tap on those pulses will greatly improve their ability to read and feel the music that they’re playing.

These observations aren’t just for the beginner student either. Recently I’ve had clarinet/piano students with 4+ years experience (where I’m their 3rd or so teacher) and we’ve had to go right to the basics of pulse to get things working right again. The above are just some of the tricks I’ve had to use to help them on their musical journey.


One thought on “A Matter of Timing

  1. Pingback: Tips on Writing Student Reports « glennmccord

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