How to torture yourself with a metronome

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.

We all get frustrated while practicing. Well, most of us. I have no idea, really. When you are frustrated, you have basically four options:

  1. Give up.

  2. Try really hard to get it right.

  3. Aim for freedom (let it go).

  4. Aim for accuracy (try really easily to get it right).

I don't mean to give the impression that I feel there is anything right or wrong with any of these options.

Let's look at them in more depth.

Option 1: Give up

I'm not judging you for quitting, but I think she is... -- Pictured: Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings. CR: Eric Liebowitz/FX

This is really a perfectly legitimate choice. Sometimes, playing the piano is just not what you want to be doing right now. Maybe you'd rather be watching The Americans. I really can't blame you. Maybe you'd rather run from your problems instead of facing them. Honestly, I'm not judging.


Option 2: Try really hard to get it right

Football is like life - it requires perseverance, self-denial, hard work, sacrifice, dedication and respect for authority. — Vince Lombardi

You can try super hard...bang your fists against the walls...grit your teeth. You can try again, scold yourself for not paying attention, hope that this will be the time it will finally click. Maybe it will help a little bit. But, isn't this painful?

Maybe you really believe this is the only way. No pain, no gain. Maybe you think piano is like football (or like life, I guess...).

Now, if you want to continue practicing, but you don't want to go through unbearable pain, maybe we should look at Options 3 & 4.

Option 3: Let go (aim for freedom)

So many people think that the way to relieve stress is to slow down. This can be a huge mistake. Go faster. Figure out exactly where the stress is.

Ramp up the metronome. Really. Go faster than you are comfortable with. Feel the stress. Make it concrete.

Where in your body do you feel it? Your neck? Jaw? Hands? Eyes? What does it feel like? You don't need to answer these questions. Just ask them. And then pay attention.

Don't only play as fast as you are comfortable with. Often, lack of accuracy is a result of lack of freedom. You may need to find that freedom before the accuracy will come. If you play fast and can't figure out what to let go of, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is there any way to make this easier? Not "better" or "worse", only "easier".

  2. Is there any stress or tension that I am feeling? Where in my body is it? You don't need to be able to answer this.

  3. Is there anything I am doing right now, that I could stop doing, and would still be playing the exercise? The object is not to remove anything, but only to notice if there is anything that could be removed. If you think the object is to remove something, you will try to remove it, and this will mess up your playing, and you will think you're doing it wrong. Yes, the act of noticing might mess up your playing, might cause you to even try to remove something, but that's all fine. Just keep asking the question.

I must reiterate this really important point: These questions are only to prompt observation, not to solve problems. You don't need to be able to answer them.

If you still can't figure it out, make it faster!

Option 4: Aim for accuracy (try really easily to get it right)

Sometimes it's good to slow down the tempo to get things right (I can't even believe I'm saying that, and maybe I don't believe it 100%, but I'm going with it for now).

The big mistake is to try to fix things where you are. If it's not working, stop trying. You need to slow down. Or play just one hand. Or just one voice.

I don't mean you must slow down if it is not accurate, only that you must slow down if you wish to try to make it more accurate. You are free to continue playing at any tempo you wish, as long as you don't mind the consequences of the way you are practicing at that tempo. In my practicing, whenever I repeat something at the same tempo, I try to notice any way in which I am trying to play correctly, and any effects of those efforts. I just kind of "hang out" there, rather than trying to play better each time. If I want to try to play better, my only hope is to make it more likely I will be able to notice more details of the piece.

Make it a game

I find that when I can balance between Options 3 & 4, things go really well for me. I am engaged the entire time I am practicing, I rarely get frustrated, and when I do get frustrated, I have options. The key is to approach this all with an attitude of playful curiosity.

When I notice I am getting stressed and tense, I can speed up the metronome (Option 3), or even just stay where I am, and work on noticing the tension. This can actually be fascinating work, because it can be quite amazing to discover where tension can hide, and what can trigger it.

When I notice that my playing is comfortable and free, but it just doesn't sound good, I can zoom in (Option 4, slow down) and work on details. Until I get stressed again, in which case I jump back to Option 3.

I'd love to hear of anyone's experiences practicing this way, and any pitfalls that I have perhaps left unaddressed.

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