Fiddling with a Metronome


Fiddling while the Metronome Tocks

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 three 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. The third is adjusting your speed to the metronome when you change its setting a little bit. Usually this means going faster, but not always.

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.

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 Down and 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.

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 when I use Dr. Beat. 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. The perceived insrease in speed can be more or less in the two beats per minute change. This means sometimes when I increase by two the tempo seems faster than I expect. Other times it does not feel like the metronome is giving me the push for speed I expected.

My belief is that certain speeds relate directly, or harmonically, to natural biorhthyms like heart beat, breathing, or brain wave activity. As you go from one speed to a higher, different natural rhythms are entrained. That is what accounts for the different subjective perception of certain changes in 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, my target when practicing, using the metronome, is to increase my speed to 108 beats per minute. Four times that number gives you the 432 I regard as the natural tuning frequency number. But, that’s really another matter, and in the woo-woo area anyway.

The Dr. Beat is a great tool. It’s also a little pricey. More affordable and just as powerful and flexible is the Wittner metronome.  It’s a good recommendation for my students, also.

In the studio, using the Wittner, I start fiddle students by counting off, 1-2-3-4. The student joins me on the first note and matches my pace. After a while I start us together and then drop out. Soon I am just counting off and letting the student begin. Last, I let the student start without my count.

Each of these steps require focussed attention, trial and error, and patience. We normally get to the end result in one session. Just a reminder, there is a video on this page.

Start Using the Wittner Metronome

You can get a fancier Wittner style metronome, but this is the one I recommend. It's simple, sturdy and will do everything I want it to do.

Wittner metronome in basic black