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When I'm practicing with a metronome, how hard should I be on myself before saying "OK, I got it down at this speed, let's increase the tempo."?

I'm going with "after playing 'a while' and getting (subjectively) comfortable with the exercise, make three more repetitions with absolutely no mistakes". Sometimes this turns out to be pretty hard, because lack of concentration kicks in.

So, how to deal with practicing with a metronome, regarding this particular aspect of "levelling up"?

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What kind of music are you playing? It sounds like you're working through something like a Hanon or Czerny exercise, but I'm not really sure. –  Babu Nov 21 '11 at 1:02
    
To put it simply, let's say I'm playing 'difficult-ish' guitar-oriented metal-or-something (think Dream Theater, Satriani, etc) –  Rafael Almeida Nov 21 '11 at 2:03

6 Answers 6

I don't think practising with a metronome should be any different than normal, so my advice is that you should be able to play it flawlessly consistently before increasing your tempo. If you're having trouble with focus you could try playing smaller parts repeatedly, and then stitching them together. The short parts should allow for you to get into a rhythm and not need as much focus, without making the entire song as boring.

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Sorry to be nitpicky, but when can I really say 'this is flawless'? Also, I don't really know what you mean by 'normal' (see my comment on @luser's answer). –  Rafael Almeida Nov 21 '11 at 2:09
    
@RafaelAlmeida I would call it flawless when you make no mistakes and on a listen back it sounds perfectly in time. Obviously true perfection may not be reachable, but without a teacher the best you can go on is your own perception and goals. I meant "normal" to mean without a metronome, apologies if that's not normal in the culture you're used to :) –  Matthew Read Nov 21 '11 at 16:43
    
Matthew - I pretty sure anyone could play it flawless, but for how long, or how many repetitions? I'd say if you can play it 10 times through, or for 3 minutes, you're on to something good ... ? –  Kieren Johnstone Mar 19 '13 at 21:24

I find it very difficult to speed up by raising the metronome setting and playing along. I find it just adds to my confusion and panic. So I use the metronome just to stabilize the tempo in my playing (find the spots where I'm rushing or dragging, and even it out).

To actually increase the tempo is more "mental". I have to find larger rhythmic phrases to focus on, and ignore smaller details (letting the fingers take over). Sometimes I have to step away from the instrument entirely and just focus on reading faster, raising the tempo in my audile imagination.

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I've never really approached 'getting faster' using a 'playing it faster in your head' strategy. The whole 'guitar practice' culture I run into seems to use a 'metronome-first' approach. –  Rafael Almeida Nov 21 '11 at 2:07
    
@RafaelAlmeida: Maybe my difficulty is unique. Or it could be that I only resort to the metronome when trying to learn a song and develop the technique to play it. So my concentration is already heavily taxed, and "2-bpm faster" is the last straw! –  luser droog Nov 21 '11 at 5:59
    
@luserdroog: You need to learn the song and develop the technique at low speed first. Then when you can play it effordless at low speed, you can introduce the metronome to speed it up. –  awe Nov 23 '11 at 7:35
    
@awe: I'm drawing this conclusion from 5 years of working up a single piece (Paganini Caprice). After 3 years of minimal progress, I needed something a little more radical. –  luser droog Nov 23 '11 at 10:30

Being able to play a piece with no mistakes at a particular speed along with a metronome lets you know you can speed it up a bit and see how you do.

I find cranking it up by 5-10% each step works quite well.

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I would recommend not using a metronome to "push" your tempo faster. I recommend using your metronome to set a goal tempo and measuring your progress towards that tempo. Then play the exercise without a speed constraint. It helps you focus more on learning the piece, as opposed to learning the piece quickly.

Once you have really learned the piece, the speed at which you play will be limited by your technical ability, rather than your knowledge of that specific music. While you can increase your technical ability by repeating the same exercise over and over, this is largely because you increase your technical ability by playing music at all. I prefer to practice without the metronome every day, while also making sure to play other pieces, especially music that I already know well. Just like your reading ability was developed more by reading lots of books as opposed to the same one over and over, your playing ability will be developed more by just playing a variety of music.

Since you won't be able to play significantly faster immediately, I would recommend placing your time checks less frequently than every time you run-through the piece, like every week or every other day. Just give yourself time to improve instead of constantly measuring yourself.

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Like I said in my comments to the other answers, "using a metronome to 'push' your tempo faster" is commonplace in guitar-oriented practice. I'm just surprised that it seems I misunderstood something I took for granted for years. –  Rafael Almeida Nov 21 '11 at 2:12
    
The approach you use--either metronome-driven or metronome-monitored--is a very personal choice. I very much prefer to take my time in developing speed because of the potential for introducing mistakes via the metronome-driven method. My choice was also driven by how annoying I find metronomes! :P I just wanted to provide an alternative method of practice that you might like better. –  Babu Nov 21 '11 at 13:19

If you don't like the "N times with no mistakes" approach, then another approach you might try is the "slow, fast, slow, fast" approach. In that approach, "slow" is a speed you're comfortable playing with no mistakes, and "fast" is one notch outside of your comfort zone. (So the amount you change your metronome should be very small, if you think about it.)

If I may, the lack of concentration you point out is kinda the point. When you're able to play the piece without the majority of your mental concentration directly on each individual physical motion you'll be able to focus on introducing more nuance into the music. This is the goal of practice – to know the instrument so well that your attention is on making music, not playing notes. I'm not trying to suggest that you deliberately divide your attention, but just recognize that your wandering concentration and even a small sense of boredom is a necessary transition point in learning technically difficult music.

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+1 Psychological reasoning! –  luser droog Nov 21 '11 at 6:03

It depends a little on how you're using your metronome to practice. My instructor once guided me to turn the metronome down to a speed where I was confident that I could play the piece 100% with no mistakes. When first learning a tune, this could be painfully slow. Each subsequent time I would sit down to practice this piece, I would start again at this tempo. After a couple of run throughs at this speed, I would increase the metronome by 10 BPM, after a couple more run throughs, another 10 BPM increase, until I was one or two "clicks" (increments of 10 BPMs) above the desired speed of the song.

After I played it a few times at a speed faster than the destination tempo, I would turn the metronome back down to the desired speed, and suddenly my technical accuracy would improve, since I started from 100% accuracy, and built up slowly to a tempo above the destination tempo.

I agree with another poster here that getting bored with the tune is actually a good thing. You want to be as comfortable as possible while playing the piece, not frantic in a "hanging on for dear life" mentality while playing the piece. It should seem effortless, not really difficult during the performance. Stepping up the BPM slowly should help in this effort.

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