On Teaching Time
One of the first things I’m sure to inculcate in my students is the importance I place upon practicing with a metronome. Almost without exception, I am met either by resistance or by the half-hearted nod that says “Yeah, sure, sounds good, nope, not gonna do that, thanks teach!” I suppose it makes sense that it wouldn’t be someone’s foremost aesthetic ideal to play along to something reminiscent of the ticking of a clock (“how much longer till I’m done practicing?”) or the bleep of a digital egg timer; it feels constricting, distracting, even artificial. It can really take us out of the moment, of the directness of experience we get from simply strumming away at the pace that feels “right” for us.
However, as the more experienced musician in the room, we teachers know that for all their protestations, they will most certainly thank us later! So how do we convince the reluctant time-keeper that practicing with the metronome is not only something they do to get us off their backs, not just an arcane disciplinarian tool, but truly one of the keys to mastering that most fundamental element of rhythm?
Whether I’m working with a 9 year-old or a 42 year-old, the secret to overcoming resistance to this and other important practice techniques seems to revolve around making it fun, light, even joyous. “A spoonful of sugar, etc.”, if you will. I suss out their degree of resistance and push back with an equal amount of humor and lightness. I ask them to just sit and listen to the bleeps or clicks flash by and to bop their heads and move their bodies to the beat as if they were listening to a groove from the world’s sickest drummer. I make them count out loud, “ONE two three four”, and trick them into smiling while they do so, into comically overdoing the accent on the downbeat, stomping their feet, clapping their hands, whatever it takes to connect viscerally with the simple truth of the even, truthful, metric division of time into units of sound that is being delivered to them. I will spend a good portion of lesson time getting them to establish a bodily rapport with the once-oppressive noise that they have so resisted, and then translate that same smiling enthusiasm into their still-unsure hands as the count makes its way from the device in front of us, into their ear ears, through the nerve endings in their fingertips and out into the world. Seeing them start to really and deeply connect with the primal power of rhythm, with our bodily affinity for acoustic unity, is such a simple and such a satisfyingly human experience. It delights me to watch as the innate intelligence of their ears starts to make its way to their hands. And humor and enthusiasm seem to be among the best bridges that I have found.