What if there were no way to do it wrong?

All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself. — J.S. Bach

We all know that you’re supposed to play classical music right. There are just so many things to get wrong, aren’t there? Wrong notes, wrong rhythms, wrong dynamics, wrong phrasing, wrong articulation, wrong attitude.

What if there were no way to do it wrong? Are there benefits to getting rid of the concept of “wrong”? Even just for a bit?

Yes, you would be lying to yourself (everyone knows there’s a right and wrong, right?). Yes, you would be disrespecting your teacher, the composer, and the great art of music. Yes, you would disappoint your audience and embarrass yourself. Yes, you might never make any progress whatsoever, and you might even go backwards. If you’re in school, you might fail. If you’re working, you might get fired. You might get a nasty look from the conductor.

That wasn’t a wrong note I heard, was it?

Let’s not argue with any of that.

I don’t mean to take this lightly (well, part of me does). But my question is only: are there any benefits to doing it wrong?

Would it be more fun? Would it be freer? Would it be more personal? Would it hurt less? Would it let you give up the stress of trying to get it right? And if that stress is gone, would it make you more relaxed, more observant, more willing to take risks?

Even just for a moment?

It’s only a question.

(Sorry, Bach, I don’t mean to pick on you. You just had that stern look I was going for…)

Three unconvincing reasons not to use a metronome

I am tempted to say that if you don’t use a metronome regularly in your practicing You’re Doing it Wrong, but I’m sure that would be unfair.

Nonetheless, not everyone agrees with me. So here are the top three arguments against using a metronome, and my responses.

Argument 1: It is only for beginners who can’t keep time.

My response: Literally no one has a problem “keeping time.”

The same beginners who struggle mightily to count to the number 4 in a piano lesson have no problems performing complex dance moves with their friends, or singing along to their favorite songs on the radio. They also have no problems walking, talking, playing video games, or any of the other thousands of tasks that call for highly trained and coordinated senses of rhythm and timing.

This is my beloved Seiko SQ50-V, the only metronome loud enough to hear and melodious enough to make me feel like I don’t need to shoot myself.

The reason they seem to lose all of this in a piano lesson is only because they are distracted. They are trying to do many things at once (play the right notes, read the symbols on the page, please the teacher, prevent themselves from screaming in frustration) and they are caring very much whether they are doing them well. Yes, that messes up your sense of time. The metronome will bring you back into the present.

 

It is not only beginners who get distracted. Maybe you’ve learned to hide it, though. You’ve learned to play reasonably in tempo, despite your distractions, your anxieties, your fears, and your insecurities. Are you paying any price for that?

Argument 2: It is too stressful.

My response: If you think the metronome is stressful, you are probably taking it way too seriously. The metronome can be a calming, soothing force.

Don’t try to follow the metronome. That is where the stress comes from. Instead, let it click in the background. Sometimes you’re with it, sometimes you’re not. It doesn’t really matter, does it? Is the metronome going to yell at you if you deviate from its tempo?

If you feel rushed by the metronome, can you let it go?

Argument 3: It leads to mechanical playing.

My response: On the contrary, I believe the metronome is an incredibly useful tool for developing musicality. The purpose of the metronome is not to learn musicality per se, but rather to learn control and poise. Once you have control, you can express the music however you see fit.

It is musicians who cannot play with a metronome, and instead base all of their movements on escaping their own anxieties, who end up playing inflexibly and mechanically.

Stress is easy

Here’s a challenge for you: can you just let go of your difficulties?

Maybe you say it’s not hard enough. You say it’s too easy to let go; what you really need is to hold on, to challenge yourself, to get it right, to learn.

You’re playing the piano, and you feel stress creeping up. Your shoulders tense, your jaw clenches, and you start freaking out about what’s coming next. Can you just let it go?

This sounds like a question you’ve probably heard a million times in the past. Of course, the common advice is to simply relax, take it easy, focus, breathe, etc. You’ve heard it all before.

It will be easier, you will have less stress, it will feel better, it will be more fun. Right? Then why don’t you do it?

You try it, but it doesn’t work. You stay relaxed in the places where the music is simple, the spots you know well…and then something comes up and the tension is suddenly back again (doesn’t seem so easy, does it?).

Or maybe you manage to do it for a moment, but your playing is worse as a result. Your articulation is sloppy, you miss notes, etc. You’re not going to let that happen again, are you?

So the tension and stress continue forever.

You always try to play well…that comes so easily to you…it’s second nature, isn’t it? How can that be the hard way?

Maybe the hard way is letting go.