How to keep a steady beat (pulse) while performing music

In my high school string orchestra class, where we’re rehearsing Handel’s Sarabande, I’ve been having an ongoing discussion with the students about the unintended tendency of our tempo to fluctuate — rush or drag in certain sections. Some of the students immediately want to use a loud, rehearsal room metronome to keep the performance in time. My instinct is to encourage them to subdivide and to listen around the ensemble for the finest subdivision — in our case eighth notes. My sense is that we need to try listen and internalize subdivisions. “How can we internalize something if it’s not externalized first?” some of the students complain, with a certain logic.

Classic style metronome and wood stringed bass

How does metronome practice “work”, anyway? Do we have to be highly attuned to where we rush, where we drag, for it to be an effective learning process that leads to improvement in our consistency of pulse? Or does metronome practice work more by rote and repetition, ingraining a clockwork in our minds and muscles?

I asked Farsheed for his input on the issue, figuring his skills as a drummer mean that he’ll likely have some ideas. Here’s his response:

"I think the way metronome practice works is more through slow repetition that builds muscle memory. The goal isn’t to get better at playing along with a metronome like a robot, but to improve our ability to play without one. That means ideally when playing along with a metronome, you can hear it but you don’t have to pay close attention to it. If playing along with a metronome feels stressful or difficult, that’s probably a sign the tempo is too fast for what you are trying to do. Slow the metronome down to the point where you can play along in a more relaxed state of mind and so the metronome no longer feels imposing. I think issues with rushing and dragging often happen because we are not in a relaxed state of mind & body, and that anxiety causes us to overthink and causes our muscles to tense up. So, I think the idea of practicing with a loud metronome in class is not a bad idea, but maybe only at a very slow tempo to make sure the students are relaxed and that the metronome is not an elephant in the room. Then once everyone feels comfortable at the slower tempo (comfortable to the point of boredom), you can try gradually increasing the tempo and/or remove the metronome. Your idea to have students listen around the ensemble for the finest subdivision seems a bit counterintuitive as you want them to hear and pay close attention to a kind of relative ‘hidden’ metronome. That might lead to a distracted and tense performance, which may lead to more rushing and dragging. I wonder though, is your idea to focus on listening to subdivisions because students are having trouble understanding how to play the notated rhythms?

I really like Farsheed’s idea of aiming for a relaxed state of mind in which the metronome is no longer imposing, and getting there by starting well under the desired tempo. We’ll try that in rehearsals next week! In the Sarabande, our unintended tempo changes usually occur in transitions — for example the violins are playing an eighth note accompanying role, while the cello section has a melody with longer rhythms, in this case dotted half notes and quarter notes. When the roles reverse in a transition, there will be a tendency for the tempo to drag, the guilty party usually being the violins taking on the melodic role with longer tones. The idea is that keeping the listening focus on the chugga-chugga eighth notes (the finest subdivision) before and after the transitions will help keep the tempo consistent. String players are renowned for taking their sweet time with long tones in the melody, and in their bliss, blocking out all else. I know because I’m one such string player myself!