Fiddling with a Metronome

Fiddling with a Metronome

Using the metronome while you play or practice the fiddle is a learned skill. It is not immediate and intuitive.

I have coached many violin and fiddle students in using a metronome. Every time the student learned how to match the pace of playing a tune to the tock-tock pace of the metronome.

There are two skills to master. One is starting your playing precisely with the metronome sound. The other is keeping up without lagging behind or surging ahead of the sound.

If you are learning to do metronome practice without the assistance of an experienced coach, begin the easiest way you can think of. For example, take as your first task playing four potatoes, or eight, with the metronome. Synchronizing the standard barn dance kick off to a metronome beat is easier than matching a fiddle tune.

Getting Started with the Metronome

Think of the barn dance kick off: Dah-duh-duh, Dah-duh-duh, Dah-duh-duh, Dah-duh-duh. The tock or click hits on the Dah only, not the first duh. If you play and the tock hits on the Dah and also the first duh, you are playing half speed. That’s okay for practice. Just be aware of it.

Suppose you are playing at half speed and the metronome is set at 120, your real speed is 60. For teaching purposes I use the metronome at half speed to bring the student gradually up to about 108. Then I cut the speed in half to 54 to demonstrate that sound as the same speed in relation to the fiddle tune.

When the kick off works out, try going into a shuffle type of hoe down. Bilem Cabbage Downand Mississippi Sawyer are good examples. If you have my book, 43 Fiddle Tunes in Tab, try Shortnin Bread or Ida Red first.

How fast should you set your metronome? That depends on your target speed. You need to get settled into your cruising speed. That’s the speed that allows you to play a hoe down as fast as you can comfortably without making flubs. This isn’t your top speed. Allow yourself to relax into it and enjoy playing.

I don’t usually use the metronome with my students until they reach intermediate level. That means they can play about ten tunes at 80 tocks a minute.

Develop Metronome Skills

The usefulness of the metronome is:
1. To play at a steady pace without speeding up or slowing down. When you can play at that steady pace without flubs, you are cruising.
2. Once you’ve gotten used to using the metronome, you can determine your cruising speed on any tune. They will not all have the same speed or pace. Some tunes are easier to play fast than others.
3. You can use the metronome to increase your speed little by little. Digital metronomes allow the smallest increment for increasing tempo. That very small increment can be helpful with a tough piece of music.

I have found that increases of two beats a minute work well for me. If I’m playing a tune at 86, I’ll notch it up to 88. Usually that seems minimally faster. There is a curious anomaly about this. Sometimes when I increase by two the tempo seems faster than I expect, as though the metronome decided to really give me a push for speed.

You may find that a given target speed works for you for most tunes. When I started using the metronome, I adopted 96 as my target tempo. I had heard that it was a good dance tempo. Mark O’Connor’s early performances were in this area.

Later my hammered dulcimer colleague at the Sunshine State Acoustic Music Camp, Ray Balenger, said he liked 104. Then I met the Juniper girls who play their reels and jigs at about 112 to 116. Finally, there’s Liz Carroll, who plays at speeds of 120 to 124 and uses ornaments every other beat. That’s a challenge!

Presently I’m practicing, using the metronome, to increase my speed and use of ornaments, too. Check back in a few months. I’ll tell you how that’s going.

The Dr. Beat is a great tool. It’s also a little pricey. More affordable and just as powerful and flexible is a software metronome I recommend. You can find out about it at (Note: use to be Windows only. Now Mac, alto.)