Ask Jason

May 10, 2020

Anne asks…

“Do you practice your conducting in front of a mirror with a metronome?”

Let me start with the metronome part. One of the main uses of a metronome is for working technically challenging “licks” up to tempo. You have a hard passage you have to play at, say, 152 beats per minute, so you start very slowly, say at 70 beats per minute, and work your way up gradually with a metronome until you can play it at the concert tempo (or give up and decide to fake that part).

That’s not as relevant for conductors since being able to conduct up to tempo is never a problem. I can conduct Strauss’ Don Juan much faster than I can play it on the cello! But the second use is very relevant for conductors – you use a metronome to decide at what tempo you’re going to do the music.

You try it at 108 beats per minute, then 112, then 116 and weigh the differences. Sometimes you’ll get more nuance or subtlety at a slower tempo or maybe a faster tempo will give it more life or help the audience hear the architecture more clearly.

By the 19th century some composers wrote metronome markings in the music to say how fast to play. But by the 20th century when we heard composers playing their own pieces we found many didn’t use their own tempo indications! The printed markings become a piece of information you have to evaluate with some grains of salt.

I think the tempo you choose is really critical because music happens in time. If your attention flags when you’re reading a book, you can re-read the last paragraph. You can stare at a painting as long as you like and drink in its details. But taking the music even just a little slower or a little faster can have a huge effect on how the audience perceives the piece.

The third way musicians use a metronome is one I use a lot, too. It’s the “corrective” use – training you not to rush or drag the beat. That’s important when you’re the time-keeper for 90 musicians.

Sure, the tempo of the music can ebb and flow on purpose… Brahms is a great example of a composer whose music must always be rhythmic but never metronomic. But if you’ve decided the piece should be at 126 beats per minute the metronome will tell you if you accidentally veer off. I have to run the music in my head at home at 126 to know where my tendencies to get ahead or behind are.

That said, sometimes I show up to orchestra and try to do 126 but when I start waving my arms and they make all that sound, I couldn’t pick 126 out of a line-up! Playing an instrument in time has a tactile feel. It’s very different when you move from the orchestra in your head to the one in the room.

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