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I haven't played music in quite a long time. Once thing I've noticed when I started playing again is that my tempo is completely horrible. When I play along to any song or instrumental, sometimes I play too fast, sometimes too slow, but never at the right tempo. Even when I'm not playing along to an existing recording, it's painfully obvious that my tempo is way too shaky. My awareness of this issue only makes things worse, because I get nervous and drift further away from the right tempo.

Tapping my foot doesn't help. I tap my foot at an equally wrong tempo.

Paying special attention to the drums doesn't help either. If I do, I can't concentrate on my own part.

Using a metronome only has the demoralizing effect of making me want to turn it off.

Is there any set of exercises and/or training guidelines specifically for practicing my tempo?

6

Using a metronome only has the demoralizing effect of making me want to turn it off.

It's okay to turn your metronome off, so long as eventually you turn it back on again.

The reason it's demoralizating is that it's exposing the faults in your playing. The reason that it's helpful is that it's... exposing the faults in your playing.

The metronome is telling you where precisely you're having problems and hopefully you're also able to use the metronome to figure out what the nature of the problem is in each of those spots. That allows you to do something about them.

So you work as much with the metronome as you can stand, then you turn it off. Then, when you can make yourself do so, you turn it back on and grind your tempos further, until you have to turn it off again.

That might mean 10 minutes per practice session. That might mean once a week. That might mean once a month. It's up to you. Obviously, the more you can do the more helpful it will be.

Some other things you can do:

  • Nobody so far has mentioned writing instructions into your score for yourself. Heaven knows when I was a kid studying piano, there were plenty of places my instructor had scrawled in big block letters SLOW DOWN.

  • Make sure you're counting at the right level of subdivision for the tempo you want to maintain. If you're playing something marked in common time (4/4) and you have a tendency to drag, maybe the problem is that you're counting four (as the time signature indicates!); it can be a lot easier to keep the tempo up if you count in two, as if it were marked in cut time (2/2). If you're dragging in 6/8, counting six may be the culprit, since it should be felt in two; indeed, really fast 6/8 should sometimes be counted in four -- by pairing up bars, and thinking of it as 4/4 with triplets!

  • The reverse is also true: if you're rushing, or generally sloshing about, maybe you're not counting at a fine enough division of the bar.
  • As I wrote here rhythm is also an essential element of music. If you're having trouble maintaining tempo, maybe the problem is you don't really understand what you're playing is supposed to sound like. No different, really, that someone who is having trouble staying on pitch. In both cases, the issue is usually one of getting the feel for what the piece is doing musically. Once you have that, things sort themselves out.

So maybe it would be worth taking your hands off the instrument for a bit, and sitting with the score and asking yourself, "What do I think should be happening here, musically?" Maybe if you keep going off tempo, as per your metronome, the problem is that you have ideas about what the various moments should sound like and feel like -- "This part should be schmalzy and placid" or "this part should be busy and energetic" -- that are contradicted by the metronome. Maybe you're having trouble staying on tempo because you're mistaken in some way about what's happening in the piece.

4

If it's that frustrating, don't start out trying to play a piece to the metronome. Just practice rhythm and timing separately from the melody.

  • Does your metronome have a visual option, where you can turn the volume off, but it's still keeping time? Count a few beats with the metronome audible at a moderate tempo (80-120 bpm), and then turn the volume off, but keep counting (don't look, either). At first, only try to count 1 or 2 beats before you turn the volume back. Keep extending that until you reach a point where your time gets off. You can also set the metronome slow, and try to play an even 2, 3, or 4 beats in the space between beats. Try it with just counting, and with humming a simple tune to keep beats (something like happy birthday or a nursery rhyme).
  • Separate melody from rhythm. When you've got a piece to play, try speaking the rhythm to the metronome. Don't worry about what the notes are, just the rhythm. This is also a good exercise to try tapping along to.
  • Listen to music and tap along. Spend 10-15 minutes a day listening with your focus being counting along, not simply enjoying the music.

Also, some people prefer drum tracks to metronomes. You can use them exactly the same way.

4

I play and now teach ancient style rudimental snare drum, which has all kinds of screwy tempo things that happen and weird technique that makes certain patterns want to drag.

Generally, the biggest hurdle to keeping a steady beat is fluency - your body gets in the way of what you're trying to do.

To demonstrate this, can you clap to a beat? If you can, then your brain can follow a beat, and it's probably your technique getting in the way. If you can't...practice clapping along to music, then come back.

If the metronome isn't working for you, chances are you're using it too early or too fast. You need to be able to play the difficult passages BEFORE trying to match them to a speed - otherwise your tempo will be at the mercy of physics. Even ambient keyboards have technical issues - the quick changes between chords, for example.

So here's few exercises I do to improve my students' technique. These are all things we do independent of specific music.

  • Clap along with another person who's playing.
  • Mark Time (we're a marching group), or tap your foot to the music other people are playing. Always tap your foot while playing anything, especially easy stuff.
  • Play something with someone else on the same part, and listen to each other.
  • Play the same (easy) pattern while I'm clapping at different speeds. Usually we start with 8th notes, then add some different rhythms. You can also accomplish this with a metronome.
  • Sightread dead simple music with a metronome. When you mess up, do a line over. I made a "dictionary" of 4 measure lines of common patterns that we work through.

As for particular passages:

  • Use check patterns. Check patterns are simplified versions with the same rhythmic skeleton. Alternate between the check pattern and what you're actually trying to play and make sure they sound the same. For a flamacue (accent on beat two with several grace notes and retrograde hand motion), we just play 16th notes. With runs on wind instruments, we play the key notes at the right times, and then add the inner notes.
  • Play it slower. Avoid doing things like half speed, pick a totally unrelated tempo. Try to make your brain focus on the rhythm, rather than on the technique or how it "sounds".
  • Practice small chunks until they're fluent (easy), then group them into larger sections, with a metronome.
  • In all cases, get away from playing by ear, and instead play from knowledge. This will increase your confidence - if it's mechanical and not subjective, you'll be more confident.

I'm a fan of making things easy. There's no point in doing something hard if you can find an easier way that takes 50% longer. Your increased stamina will more than make up for the extra time it takes. So break your hard parts down into manageable chunks that you can easily do in a sitting.

The metronome and foot tapping really are your friends, and while it takes some time to get used to (one more thing to think about), focus on learning to do those things with easy music at low speeds. Eventually it will become natural, but it does take time.

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    I like clapping complex rhythms along with music. This is especially useful for internalizing hemiolas and syncopated patterns. But it's best done in private because clapping that way often annoys people. (And never at a live concert.... ;) ) – Josiah Apr 1 '15 at 16:00
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Playing in tempo needs your brain to focus on the music and the tempo at the same time. Play very easy music with metronome (i would start doing quarter notes only) so your mind can focus on the tempo. Record yourself to listen relaxed after. And smile and have fun!

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One of the arguments I have heard is to keep time on a cycle, not a line. If you're tapping your foot, think of it as though you were moving in a circle, with a tap near the bottom (realistically your foot will still move in a line, but what matters is how your mind is thinking about the motion, not the actual motion itself).

When you tap your foot up and down, there is always a little error in your motion caused by the reverberations. These errors are in-line with your movement, so it takes away from your ability to figure out where you were. Accordingly, you have to rely on some internal time keeper, which takes more years to mature.

One of the physical goals of circular patterns is to ensure that, when the tap occurs, time is actually being kept in a different place, so that the tap doesn't mess things up. Consider the old metrinomes which waggle back and forth. They emit their click noise at a point of maximum velocity, where the sudden addition of some friction has the smallest affect. If they were to click at a spot where they have no velocity (the ends), the click could easily catch the weight, and skew its timing.

The technique works best with an actual circle. Many drummers recommend moving the drumstick head in circles instead of lines. However, even if you're just tapping your foot, if you think in terms of circles, your mind will eventually find a way to make a circular "feel." One way you'll find your brain doing this is that it will start thinking about both the position and velocity of your foot, rather than just the position. It can trade those two off just like a circle. From there, your brain can find other mental structures which can do "circular" like behaviors. When that happens, you'll find your ability to keep time becomes much stronger. Eventually, you'll no longer need to tap your foot.

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I have a few ideas.

  1. Play with a live person. It's fun to play duets. Or you could each take one hand of a piano piece.

  2. Connect some earbuds to an electronic metronome to give yourself a click track. Record the right hand of your piece on an mp3 player, listening to the click track in your ear while you're playing. Then plug the earbuds into the mp3 player, and play the left hand while you're listening to the recorded right hand. Or you could start by recording the left hand.

  3. Sing your piece while walking. You don't have to sing beautifully to do this. You can even do it with just the rhythms, without singing the right notes.

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