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On this site, we often tell intermediate musicians to slow things down and practice with a metronome to establish a good sense of time. I have the opposite problem. I spent my college years practicing everything with a metronome and writing down the tempo of each exercise in a practice journal. As a result, I feel a little stranded without it, and when I sat down to play my scales this morning, I was surprised to find that I couldn't "remember" my comfortable speed without referring back to the metronome.

What generic exercises can advanced musicians use to reduce their dependency on the metronome?

I have occasionally done the one where you set the metronome to cut out for a bar and try to come back in on the beat, but the main purpose of this exercise is to improve your sense of "external" time (your ability to match an externally imposed meter and play in time with other musicians).

I am looking rather to improve my "internal" time, i.e. the ability (in a rubato context) to traverse between tempos in a way that's expressive and controlled and (in a nonrubato context) to start out at the right tempo without referring to a reference beat.

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  • What instrument, and what are you like when playing with others? – Tim May 9 '20 at 6:15
  • I'm a multi-instrumentalist and looking for generic exercises based on scale patterns, rhythms, etc that can be applied to any instrument. When playing with others I... am not satisfied with my sense of time. I lose precision easily if someone is playing behind or ahead of the beat, or if the drummer tries something fancy. – Max May 9 '20 at 11:50
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    Is the problem the same on all instruments? What sort of music? Playing with others, it mght be they who are losng time not you! Been there too often! – Tim May 9 '20 at 14:53
  • Dupe possiblity - 'How can I improve my sense of time?' – Tim May 9 '20 at 14:54
  • Yes, I had a look at that question--the top answer includes the metronome cutout exercise I mentioned. But the half of my question that I feel hasn't been answered yet has to do with developing expressive capacity through tempo, including (perhaps especially) in a rubato context. – Max May 10 '20 at 3:16
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This may come over as weird.

Continue using the metronome!

But (there's usually a but...) Use it in several different ways - which maybe you haven't yet.Take a song at, say, 120bpm. Set the metronome at 60 instead. Set it at 30. Play the song as normal, but there won't be as many reference points t follow.

Back to the 120. This time, don't think the click is on the beat, but it's the '&' in between. Drop it down to 60. Or 30. At those points, come to a decision what a click actually represents. At 60, it could be beat 2, or the & between 3 and 4. There are many many specific bits of the bar it could be! Down to 30, and there's very little holding you together, but decide where in the bar that one-click-per-bar it is, and count, out loud if needed, for that to remain the same throughout.

This could be done with simple rhythm patterns with chords on guitar, with a single note pattern on most other instruments.

Another idea is to take the rhythm/tempo on with your body. Some tap a foot, some nod a head, some are virtually dancing while playing - a joy to watch, and it sure keeps their timing good.

EDIT: to address your 'rubato' concern. I don't know how this can happen. When we stretch and squash the timing, it's out - by definition - anyway. Doing that with others may well throw them, unless you're the vocalist, and they're all keeping strict time and you're in and out. You can do that, but you must be aware of where beat one in the bar is at all times.(Shades of my metronome reference). Stray too far, and it does sound like you don't know what you're doing!

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If the problem is to remember absolute speeds without getting a reference speed from a metronome, my trick for that is to utilize well-known songs that have lyrics. For example, there's a song I remember well that's about 100 bpm and starts immediately with lyrics - I sometimes think about the beginning of that song to calibrate my speed to about 100 bpm. Or there might be a particularly fast sung passage in a song - before counting-in the song I think about the lyrics of that passage to make sure that's the upper speed limit.

Maybe you remember some of these songs: (tempos might be off a couple of ticks, but you get the idea)

  • Show Must Go On: 84 bpm
  • Rosanna: 86 bpm
  • Africa: 93 bpm
  • Take My Breath Away: 96 bpm
  • Big in Japan: 99 bpm
  • Never Gonna Give You Up: 114 bpm
  • Long Train Runnin': 115 bpm
  • I Should Be So Lucky: 116 bpm
  • You're My Heart, You're My Soul: 120 bpm
  • Living on a Prayer: 123 bpm
  • YMCA: 126 bpm
  • Black Friday (Steely Dan): 130 bpm
  • Runaway (Bon Jovi): 154 bpm

Build your own list. :)

Edit. After reading your follow-up comments, I think what you aim for is a better sensitivity to using tempo as an artistic device. Music is about delivering and inducing emotions, and tempo is an important aspect in that, but you feel that it's not completely in your control - you sometimes inadvertently deliver or support a tempo that's inappropriate for the piece or the situation. When you get the speed given as a numerical tempo, or from other musicians' playing speed, you're able to follow, but you'd like to be more active and considerate with tempo.

Pay attention to the feelings that playing the piece with that particular tempo creates. For me, lyrics and how fast they're pronounced create emotions quite naturally, because there's a relation to spoken language, which is (supposedly) tightly connected to emotions. Similar "reference feelings" can be had by trying to dance to the music. You could think about your playing motions as dancing, if you can't actually dance along. ;) How relaxed are your motions? Can you add groovy ghost notes? The point is to try to live the music with your body, and not look at it as a purely intellectual thought process.

In my opinion being a good "conductor" with tempo is not an easy thing to master. Many times when listening to a recording of a gig, I've got second thoughts - did we play this too fast or too slow after all? It felt good on the stage... It's the same with all communication - for some people it's very difficult to sense what kind of emotions their actions are inducing in other people.

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  • My problem is a little more abstract than this, actually: recalling a song at a certain tempo is just another way of getting a "reference speed." Rather, I'm trying to develop greater sensitivity to tempo differences, so without any numbers ever entering the picture, I'd like to become more accurate at remembering "What tempo did we play this at in rehearsal yesterday?" Often, I find that when I sit down to practice alone material that I'd been working on with a band, I find the music sits at a different tempo. Nonetheless, +1 for a well-written post that partially addresses the question. – Max May 10 '20 at 3:12
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There's a software tool that might help you. It's called "Absolute Time Trainer", it's 100% free, and you can use it to:

A) Listen to a beat, and learn to detect the exact speed

B) Learn to tap precisely at any given speed (with visual feedback)

The overall purpose of the tool is to help you develop an "instinct" of what is the actual speed of any beat you hear, and also to be able to beat any given time with good precision, without an external cue.

This tool is included in the "Musician Training Center" software ("Tools" section in the main menu). It can be downloaded at http://www.micrologus.com/download

I have personally worked on creating this software, so I'm probably biased, but I think you might find it useful and this particular tool is free anyway. Here's a screenshot of when you are practicing "time leading" i.e. tapping at a given speed.

Absolute Time Trainer - Musician Training Center

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I work--worked, thanks Coronavirus--in a "strict tempo" band where we had to stay within a couple of beats per minute of several tempos.

I use several methods to maintain correct tempo--including using a metronome.

First method: I would set a metronome on my phone when I'm walking and walk to the beat. We all tend to walk at a particular tempo but we can change this tempo. First, I learned my natural tempo. Then I would change my gait to match different tempos. When I play music, I always tap one foot. Walking to tempo trains me to tap my foot to different tempos.

Second method: Certain often-played reference tunes have a tempo that I can recall. To establish tempo, I would play the reference tune in my head and start tapping my foot to that tempo. Frequently the reference tempo is the chorus to a song I sing a lot. Singing in my head coordinates both my breathing and my foot so there's two sources for the tempo.

Third method: I have an Android phone and use the liveBPM tempo detector to detect the beat as I'm playing. I play songs over and over again with the liveBPM app on and adjust my playing so that I'm playing at the required tempo. Then I start looking away from the app for longer and longer periods of time, checking my tempo less and less. Eventually the tune and the tempo become so linked that I have another tempo reference tune.

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  • Worked for decades in strict tempo bands. Get a good drummer, off we go! If he can't get it right, no-one can! Never really found the secret though... – Tim May 9 '20 at 18:19
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I've played the Drums for almost 10 years and I started playing the guitar about 2 years ago. To me it's kind of easy to keep the Tempo, probably because of playing the drums. But what really helps me keeping the tempo is always tapping my feet. A habit which I learned while playing the drums. You always keep your Hi-Hat Tapping so you always have your Tempo. Start listening to a Metronome in a certain tempo for a few bars and then Tap your feet along with it. And most importantly count to it. 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4. You can then restart the Metronome on the 1 and see if you kept the tempo. And what I think would also work is, as already mentioned above, pick out a song that you're able to play and listen to it first. Get a feel for the Tempo and then try it with tapping your feet along with it. Hope I could help you out with that!

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