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I can barely stay in time with the metronome when I'm trying to listen to it with my ears, but when I watch it with my eyes I can play in time fine if I'm focusing really hard (but even with focusing really hard with my ears it doesn't work for me).

Is looking at the metronome ticking a bad habit to get into?

I find it extremely hard to play in time with or without a metronome and I often am playing in a completely different rhythm to the metronome even when I'm trying to use one. It's just really hard for me and I don't know why and I really have to improve. Any other advice is welcome.

Edit: turns out I can't play in time with the metronome no matter what I do. It's really frustrating.

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    For one thing, if you look at the metronome, you won't be looking at the sheet music, which means you won't be training yourself to associate metronome beats with note timings. – Carl Witthoft Jul 16 at 14:45
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    Best to start by learning to clap, or play a single note, on every tick. Once that works, do the same exercise but two evenly-spaced notes per tick. And so on. – Carl Witthoft Jul 16 at 14:46
  • another way would be tapping your foot or bobbing your head (if possible). looking at a metronome prevents you from looking at the music, and in a band or live performance, there isnt one to look at. Turning up the volume might help a little bit. – DripKracken Jul 16 at 14:51
  • I hate playing with a metronome so much that I never do it. It's not like you have to. If it's going to make you not want to keep playing, then don't use one. – user91988 Jul 16 at 20:21
  • @AlbrechtHügli Only if you also stop breathing... respiratory sinus arrhythmia. – user3067860 Jul 17 at 14:10
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Ideally you want to feel the beat rather than see it, so yeah watching it is not a great habit. Some people would say the goal is to INTERNALISE the beat.

How long have you been practicing with a metronome? If it's less than 10,000 hours what you need to do is practice more ;)

Place the metronome behind you, practice, practice, practice, and remember that it's a process and a long term goal so be patient with yourself.

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  • I've been trying with a metronome for 2 weeks now and I cannot play more than a few lines of music without completely losing the metronome – Featherball Jul 16 at 12:21
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    2 wks is nothing. – JonH Jul 16 at 19:29
  • @Featherball why don't you try memorising the rhythm and playing that... is this bad musical habits guys? – theonlygusti Jul 16 at 20:43
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    Learning to play with the metronome is a great foundational musical skill. It's also a horrible, infuriating exercise. As Jon says, 2 weeks is nothing. Patient practice is the key to success. Come back is 2 years and let us know how you get on, I believe in you ;) – gingerbreadboy Jul 16 at 21:09
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Set a moderate tempo. Playing very fast ...and very slow tempos is hard.

Set the metronome behind you or behind something so you don't see it.

I find it extremely hard to play in time with or without a metronome

The issue doesn't really seem to be about looking at the metronome, but about counting and rhythm.

Count the beats out loud while playing. This will probably be the most effective way to start internalizing the beat.

Keep rhythms simple, gradually increase complexity. Something like the following will put accents on the strong beats and includes a few simple multiple/divisions of the beat by half...

enter image description here

You can also do counting practice by patting your hands on your lap. Do the rhythm above with two hands. One hand matches the beat which you count out loud. Switch the rhythms between hands. Try to make the hand switch without stopping the beat...

enter image description here

You can adapt that to piano with simple five finger or scale patterns in the two hands.

Depending on how much trouble you have the metronome may be a hindrance in the beginning. As you work on coordinating your timing your tempo may be uneven, but with time it will become even. During that transitional period the metronome will not give you a break! Wait until you get a pretty even tempo, then work with the metronome. Like with any other training short, frequent sessions are best. Try morning/evening sessions daily for a few weeks and then assess your progress.

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    +1 for a great answer but especially "Count the beats out loud while playing". This is the most important and most helpful possible technique. – theonlygusti Jul 16 at 20:44
  • "Count the beats out loud while playing" doesn't work for wind players. Got any suggestions? (Flute player here.) Thanks – Louis B. Jul 18 at 2:29
  • @LouisB. I suppose the first practical thing is tap with your foot. When I do that I often try to move my foot a bit for the first beat. Like beat one is a bit to the left and the weak beats to the right. Of course, the two hand patting can be done by anyone. – Michael Curtis Jul 20 at 12:53
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I use a metronome to set the really slow pace when I'm working through a new exercise and I need to regulate the evenness of my finger movements until I begin to acquire the flow of the exercise. I utilize both the sound and the visual by placing the metronome just to the side of the sheet music where I can see it in the corner of my eye and still read the exercises. What I'm really doing here is a form of multi-tasking and I had to practice at it in order to get pretty good at it. I have never noticed any detrimental effects caused by watching the metronome swing as I practice. One thing I've noticed about practicing with a metronome is that when I play with others who have not used a metronome or drum machine to learn and practice with, I have to let go of my practiced sense of rhythm and adapt myself to the undeveloped rhythm of the other players, where they speed up and slow down without noticing what they are doing.

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A lot of folk find playing along to a metronome isn't easy. Especially one that just ticks. If it pings as well, it's easier to keep in time with.

I find a drum track - on a drum machine or off the computer - is a much better bet. But maybe that's because I play with drummers (and play drums!). That will give a more live feel to any rhythm, as well as give a far better sense of rhythm to play along to.

Don't set it at a too-fast pace for anything you play. And eventually, when you improve, use it in different ways - make it play on 2 and 4 instead of 1 and 3; make it play on the &s instead of the beat. There's all sorts of different ways you can regard the clicks. Double/halve the tempo. The beat goes on...

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  • I agree that alternating tones and/or drum tracks make it much easier to keep in time than with a monotone click, probably because they add a musical quality that is easier to internalize and much more interesting to play along with. – wabisabied Jul 16 at 23:32
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If you are able to walk and co-ordinated enough to walk steadily, then you already have an internal metronome. I suggest you start simply by playing a song or a beat through headphones while you go for a walk. If you can keep in step, then you know you have the ability to keep time.

Warning: Because you will be concentrating, walk where there is no danger of being hit by traffic etc!

At home, try marching in the spot to various beats. Then march on the spot to the metronome.

If you can do all of that, then your problem is not keeping time. It is probably that your playing is at a level where you can't actually listen to the metronome because all your focus in on your fingers.

This is one reason that scales can be useful. Memorise a scale so that you are incapable of going wrong and then play the scale to the metronome.

But scales are boring!

Yes they are but it doesn't matter. If you have to practise actual tunes hundreds of times because it's too much for your current skills, the tune will become boring. You will never actually want to play it by the time you have learned it.

Conclusion

Start simple and win at every step. Be an expert at every step - even if it is just walking in rhythm. Then move to the next step and perfect that.

Good luck!

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A lot of useful tips here, like putting the metronome behind you or tapping your foot, but I’d like to add a practice tip that might cost you no time at all, depending on your lifestyle and whether you’re in 2020 lockdown :(

Whenever you’re listening to music, say you’re waiting, traveling, eating, walking, driving (I don’t know your age) or whatever, tap the beat. It doesn’t have to be obvious and make you look crazy, just so long as you know. Heck, if you’re at a concert, just go for it! At first, tap the 4/4 (1 2 3 4). Then maybe just the 1,3,4 (1 (2) 3 4). Then maybe (1 2 3 and 4). If the music is right tap (3+3+2)/8 (so 1, (2) and (3) 4) or whatever fits. Advanced exercises include tapping triplets, maybe 6 to a measure when the beat is 4/4. It will be frustrating at first, but work up slowly, set yourself goals, and you’ll quickly enjoy the Guitar-Hero-like challenge of beating a whole song. If the song has a silent part but the beat continues solidly through it (probably because the drum actually is a computer) then so much the better.

By the way, if you want to play jazz, then eventually you’ll want to tap your foot on 2 and 4, rather than 1 and 3. But this can come later, once you’ve got the basic beat down.

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  • I thought I was the only person who did this. Tapping the beat to music is a good form of ear training. – Wayne Conrad Jul 17 at 15:40
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Depending on what instrument you play, here's another tip:

First, without your instrument, make sure you are able to tap along with the metronome with your foot. Then, whenever you play, you always keep said foot tapping (whether you are using the metronome or not, or playing with a drummer/band/orchestra, just always).

Now, at the very beginning (but only at the very beginning) this will make it a little harder to keep time, since you now have a foot to worry about too. But before you know it this foot will become your anchor, the very thing that keeps you in time, always. You will notice that whenever you play along with something, you will naturally start with tapping your foot, even before you play a single note.

Eventually, you will learn to "mentally" tap your foot, without even moving it. That's when you will have (as mentioned by others) internalized the beat.

Also, if you are still having trouble keeping time in general, it pays to tap your foot (discreetly) whenever you hear music, whether you are playing or not. And dance, if you're so inclined, dancing is an awesome way to get a feel for the beat.

Lastly, don't feel bad about not getting it right the first time, we all had to learn this. Some might have learned it so young that they forgot they ever did, but I only learned to keep time (properly) in my early twenties and specifically remember being very frustrated by it, just like you are now. Nowadays it's second nature to me, not because of talent, but simply because I practiced the above. Hang in there, it'll get better!

P.S. This is not specifically a beginner technique, take a look a their feet whenever you see musicians playing, you'll see what I mean.

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  • Then there are foot tappers who can't keep the beat. It's crazy to watch their foot match their out-of-time playing. Training your foot first with the metronome sounds like a great way to avoid having a foot that can't keep the beat. – Wayne Conrad Jul 17 at 16:00
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    @WayneConrad I've noticed that when starting out, a lot of musicians will instinctively tap the accents, not the the beat. Usually, it will take a little attention and a little practice to get it right, but the return on (time) investment is more than worth it imho. – Douwe Jul 20 at 11:51
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You're not a bad musician, you're a visual musician. According to Neuro-linguistic Programming, there are three kinds of people: auditive, visual and kinesthetic (representational systems). This means every person has their main sense focused on sounds, images or physical sensations (touch, smell, pressure etc). If you work with your eyes, go for it. Also, there are Vibrating Metronomes that pulse instead of making TICK TOCK noises, which are great for drummers who cannot get deaf practicing with high volumes.

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Some great answers here. One other suggestion I haven’t seen mentioned is rather than counting numbers to stay in time, with or without a metronome, recite a rhythmic phrase instead. It can just be gibberish, or maybe something lyrical, but either way it should help you feel and internalize the timing better than mechanically saying/thinking “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and…”

As an example, if you are accustomed to drum sounds keeping time, maybe start simple with a repeating “Boom-boom Bop-boom Boom-boom Bop-boom…” (1-and 2-and 3-and 4-and…)

Or mix it up more like “Boom-boom Bop-boom Boom-bop Boom-bah…”

Use whatever words or sounds feel natural and don’t take up excessive mental bandwidth to remember. Move the hard and soft consonant endings around to accentuate beats where and how you like. Make it fun!

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