From the Mail Bin: Jeff Berlin and the Metronome

Posted by: Dave Douglas on December 20, 2009 @ 10:38 am
Filed under: Dave Douglas (Artist Thoughts), Music

Recently received this curious email out of the blue:

Hello. This is Jeff Berlin, the bass player. I am in the midst of a discussion about metronomes on Talkbass.com. I never felt that good time comes from practicing with one, and some disagree. One fellow mentioned Dave Douglas as someone who they feel acquired his sense of time from practicing with a metronome.

Could somebody please ask Mr. Douglas if this is true? It would mean a lot in this discussion to know the truth about this. Many thanks.

Jeff Berlin

P.S. If you don’t know me, please look me up on the Internet. Thanks.

Yeah, if you don’t know who Jeff Berlin is, look him up on the internet. Fantastic musician. And yes, TalkBass has plenty of forum threads like: “Show off your combos!” and “2009: A Year for Gear.” But also an incredible amount of interchange of great information on all sorts of musical topics.

Jeff’s question drove me back to something I wrote a while ago, The Practice of Ear Training. And I do talk about using a metronome to develop time playing. In the Banff thread last summer there’s also a report on Matt Penman’s rhythm classes on metronome ideas. I sent some thoughts over to Jeff and this is what he wrote back:

Hi Dave. Great stuff you’ve put down here. My take on all of it is that you regard a metronome as a tool for sub divisional ear training, not for developing a good time sense as so many young bass players seem to believe that you can get by practicing with it. I simply cannot think of a single name in all of jazz where a metronome played any part in the developed sense of time that these players exhibited throughout their careers.

There are some who regard this device as a source of good time and I reject this. But, I see that you embrace it as a great ear training device which makes sense to me. Am I correct in this assumption? To me, good time comes from experience on one’s instrument and knowledge of music which give reason to play in time. It is a result that happens later rather than earlier and supports my thinking that practicing is best done out of time, to regard and learn new information. Only then does one know what to play in a proper time feel.

I regard that everybody on every instrument acquired good time but never by using a steady click, since good time is not a metronomic reality. There are a lot of musicians in, say, Latin America who have great time and acquired it through playing and practice.

Would you agree with this? Thanks for responding because your opinion counts with me.

Take care Dave.

Jeff

For Jeff there’s a difference between having good time and having a good feel or time sense. And I definitely agree with that. But Jeff is pretty adamant about not working with a metronome — he says that in fact no great player developed their music by working with a metronome.

It’s a good question for the musos out there. Does a good time feel have anything to do with metronomic reality? I’ve laid my cards on the table on this topic. But how does practicing with a metronome or click help or harm in making music? Groove happens in collaboration with other musicians — does metronome practice have anything to inform that kind of playing? The use of time in classical playing, for example a string quartet, is very different to that of jazz, pop, or Latin music. Is a metronome a more or less useful device for practicing that kind of playing?

More basically, do you agree that having steady time is different from having good time?

Meanwhile, I hope you are all having a good time.

26 Comments

  1. […] 1 votes vote From the Mail Bin: Jeff Berlin and the Metronome Recently received this curious email out of the blue: Hello. This is Jeff Berlin, the bass […]

    Pingback by From the Mail Bin: Jeff Berlin and the Metronome — December 20, 2009 @ 10:43 am

  2. I read once that Jimmy Cobb, early in his career, practiced with a metronome to improve his time playing. If that’s true — and I’ve never really tried to verify it — I think that worked out pretty well. I would tend to agree with Jeff’s basic idea that good time playing is not something you can learn but maybe it’s not as cut and dried as that. Maybe some people learn where their time tendencies are by playing with a metronome and that’s a good thing. It would seem that that would have to be abandoned once you hit the bandstand but maybe not. I know a rock musician who does many sessions with a click who has come to really know where the click is and how to almost interact with it so that the click becomes something like a live drummer. I don’t know if Jeff or Dave would consider this a good “feel” but it does produce good results.

    Comment by Mike Grimaldi — December 20, 2009 @ 11:26 am

  3. A metronome is a streamlined way to acquire precision, nothing more nothing less. A metronome has never taught me a thing about feel, but it has granted me the precision to identify and play many different feels.

    Comment by Denny — December 20, 2009 @ 1:30 pm

  4. Thanks Denny. Then would you say the metronome is a good practice tool, since it helped you learn to play with a good feel? Or is ‘feel’ independent of that precision?

    Grimaldi – I have also heard that about Jimmy Cobb. And he swings like crazy, by definition.

    Comment by Dave Douglas — December 21, 2009 @ 7:58 am

  5. I find that metronomes and clicks are great for preparing tunes for live performance. If u have decided a song works best introing at x beats per minute, set a click for each song w. headphones for drummer or count-in guy to listen for 2 bars to ensure the proper tempo before starting the song. this overcomes tendency live for tunes to drift from ideal tempos and ensures contrast in tempos.
    Otherwise, clicks are good for experiencing what truly steady time is and how it differs from naturally compelling essential rhythms. Cardiologists once relied on little more than intuition in concluding the healthy human heartbeat should be steady and regular, but now recognize that rock-steady heartbeat can actully be a sign of bad health.
    But the Beatles made some great tunes using click tracks!

    Comment by Dr. Donald D. de Doan — December 21, 2009 @ 8:41 am

  6. Like Jeff, I’m a bass player (okay – I’m not bass player *like* Jeff, but I can dream of it). I’d always practiced electric bass with a metronome, at least when I was working on trying to gain increasing fluidity with scales and exercises. About ten years ago I started studying double bass and my teacher (Doug Miller here in Seattle, a wonderful guy and a great musician) and Doug recommended practicing scales with the metronome set to its lowest speed (40 bpm), starting with quarter notes against that tempo, then moving to 8th notes, then triplets, etc. I know that has really helped me get the position shifts more solid on the instrument – double bass is, of course, a huge instrument that requires a lot of physical movement up and down the neck, and the speed of those shifts can be deceptive without something there to keep you honest while you learn. That’s my one person’s perspective.

    Comment by Oren — December 21, 2009 @ 3:13 pm

  7. Well, yes, I would say they are independent but not mutually exclusive. For me personally a metronome is the most efficient tool I have found to hone in on precision. It’s certainly not the only one. And I have observed that when my precision improves, my feel naturally becomes better because my control is greater. A perfect click can definitely sterilize things (especially if other musical sensibilities are lacking) but a precise player always has the option to loosen up; the inverse is most definitely not true!

    Of course this is just the perspective of a common gig hustler who likes to peruse music blogs and ends up playing to a click more often than he would like. I wouldn’t presume to know more on the subject than Jeff Berlin… or Dave Douglas!

    Comment by Denny — December 21, 2009 @ 5:23 pm

  8. Regardless of necessity/benefits of practicing with a click, the truth of the matter is that, in this day and age, it is a skill that any musician looking to do substantial studio work needs to obtain.
    Will it give you a great feel? Not necessarily…from my experience, feel is something that only comes with experience…but I really can’t see any drawback to practicing with a click.
    My two-cents worth…

    Comment by Dave Chisholm — December 22, 2009 @ 2:42 pm

  9. I pop in on the TalkBass.com forum regularly because there are a lot of great discussions over there. I find it truly wonderful that a player like Jeff Berlin will take the time to respond to questions and even explore and research his own point of view, soliciting opinions from other masterful players (like Dave Douglas). I have nothing but respect for Jeff and his views about teaching and learning music. However, those are Jeff’s personal views, based on the method that he uses at his Players School. I think there are a lot of other valid ways to learn using tools that are available that are helpful to musicians.

    I’ve often used the metronome as a tool in learning and practicing. I think it is probably more important to play live with players and emulate players who have good time and a good feel, but a metronome can help with the practicing and monitoring process.

    Metronomic time and time that feels good are not necessarily the same. Metronomic time can feel good . . . it can work and groove and feel fantastic . . . but sometimes music played with a click does not sound alive. In some of our favorite recordings, often a bassist is laying back and the drummer is pushing, or the drummer is laying back and the bassist pushing. These slight metronomic inconsistencies β€” the push and pull on the beat β€” can make for a great groove.

    That being said, I still recommend practicing with a metronome. I looked at Matt Penman’s rhythm class
    http://greenleafmusic.com/blog/banff
    and his suggested exercises. These are exactly the type of metronome exercises that I practice and that I recommend to my students.

    On the TalkBass forum, I referred to a list of my own practice suggestions for bassists where I write:
    “Practice things slowly or even out-of-time to make sure that you nail the notes and fingerings. I think that a metronome is a useful tool when practicing; just like “play-along” CDs, “Band-In-A-Box,” and drum machines. Always remember that you are practicing so your bass lines and solos groove on their own. A good bass player (that would be you) can groove alone or with a drummer, with a click-track or with stuff falling down stairs. It is up to you to make it feel good.”

    So, although Jeff is very adamant about never using a metronome, I think our end goals are the same: play music that feels good rhythmically. He says the use of a metronome is superfluous or even detrimental to the learning process, but many other players and teachers use the metronome as an important, useful learning tool. To each his own.

    Comment by John Goldsby — December 22, 2009 @ 3:20 pm

  10. John,

    I’m so honored that you stopped by. Your book is also a great resource and it has been mentioned on this site.

    Amen, to each his own. To me the metronome has been invaluable as an ‘impartial observer’ of my own time feel. Learning how to play on all sides of the click is something that’s been important in my own practice.

    But I see that as a very different activity than Play-along records. It’s a lot easier to make a mistake with a metronome, and a lot easier to see that you’re wrong. I don’t like play-alongs because they just keep on going to that next chorus no matter what you do.

    Maybe that’s the way Jeff sees the metronome, and hence his aversion to it? I’ll have to ask him.

    Thanks everybody.

    [By the way, Dr. de Doan is an old high school buddy of mine. He turned me on to Gentle Giant, Clapton, and Steely Dan. Nice to hear from you, dude.]

    Comment by Dave Douglas — December 22, 2009 @ 4:07 pm

  11. I love your descriptive phrase “impartial observer”! The metronome never criticizes, it just speaks the truth πŸ˜‰

    Comment by John Goldsby — December 23, 2009 @ 1:38 am

  12. It speaks the truth with no mercy. πŸ˜‰

    Happy holiday everyone!

    Comment by Dave Douglas — December 23, 2009 @ 2:26 am

  13. I think that the metronome is key in developing musicianship. Obviously no one wants to play with a drummer/bass player that feels like a drum machine or midi track, but on the flip side- it doesn’t matter how good your groove is, if your time tanks up or down (noticeable) than the music just ISN’T happening. I took a lesson with Rodney Whitaker, and the first thing he did was put on the metronome for me. Ray Brown did the same thing to him, and so on. Metronome doesn’t generate a feel for you, but it gives you the tools to help you create a solid feel. Only when my time became steady I felt like I could generate a comfortable, wide beat that feels good to play with. I don’t think it hinders feel- I think it helps give you the tools to take it further.

    Obviously, music needs to breathe. No one’s time is perfect. Like John said, the metronome never lies. I feel like some people are more afraid to play with one than anything. My combo instructor at Eastman records EVERYTHING we do and we listen back. A recorder and metronome never lie. I can see where my faults are, and then I can work on it with a metronome.

    With that said, bass players get hired for two reasons- to know a lot of tunes, and to play in time with a strong pulse!!

    Comment by Danny Z — December 24, 2009 @ 5:37 pm

  14. As a music student who’s constantly observing how my peers around me learn I can honestly say that people learn so many different ways. I don’t believe that there is one right way to do things. Everyday I see guys in my school who are improving by practicing with the metronome and others who just kind of hear time more naturally.

    I can say for my own experience that sometimes when you are a student of music in early stages the most important thing about practicing is really to develop an objective and critical view of your playing so you can realize what areas need work. I’ve seen a lot of young students just going through motions in their practice and disregarding time. In this case a metronome can help with time but most importantly with awareness and judgement. If after realizing that you were disregarding time in your practice you are able to practice without a metronome and manage to play with good time, then great. Some people will do that and some other people will continue practicing with the metronome.

    I don’t believe the metronome is the ABSOLUTE tool to develop time. However, it is a tool. I practice some things with the metronome and some things without it. Dave Douglas came to my school and showed us some exercises that make you work with the metronome rather than relying on it and those are great and I do them often. Certain exercises that I do for sound production and coordination I don’t use a metronome because that’s not the point of the exercise.

    I think is important for people to be experimental in their practicing and find ways to use all the resources that are available so you don’t end up being a one dimensional musician.

    Comment by Juanma Trujillo — December 29, 2009 @ 4:08 pm

  15. Dave,
    Back in college we all used the Dr. Beat. I still have mine. It was one of the first metronomes that had a 1/4 inch headphone jack and gave you subdividing options. This was ideal.

    I recommend folks to name their metronome if they fear it. Make a name tag, perhaps a face. You then can plead, “O come on Bob, you have to slowing down, DON’T YOU?”.

    Bob will be honest. Bob will be cruel. Bob will dish out some tough love at times.

    “Oh Bob, thank you my friend!”

    I love the metronome for it allows to me to experience the optimum alignment of breath, relaxation and flow. I know that I am somewhere in the ballpark of a time relationship with pulse. I once took an invaluable lesson with the master drummer Ed Thigpen and he stressed the value of having a deep relationship with the ground pulse. I find that the more you trust your relationship with the ground pulse you are more flexible with how the big picture unfolds when other folks join the sonic festivities. I call it big picture swing. This is how i feel comfortable playing time melodies with a a wide spectrum of bass players. I hope they feel the same……

    I have always wanted to do an experiment at a fine institution of higher learning involving tempos and metronomes.

    Have a Quarter Note= ? Day. Everyone would practice what ever they are doing at that metronomic marking. Every ensemble would play whatever pieces they are rehearsing at that tempo. There would be metronomes quietly playing that tempo throughout the halls. People could get together and clap with it or subdivisions below and above it. I would also have a designated room where everyone purposely plays against the tempo and call it the Time Collision Room. I tell folks that a great way to feel “in” time is to feel “out” of time.

    It would be great to have a harsh time room, the tempo would be represented by strident industrial sounds, like a jackhammer. Another room would be more soothing, perhaps bird sounds in that tempo.
    Experience the mood of the tempo.

    At the end of the day, if everyone was still sane, we would have a school wide groove assembly. Playing over that tempo with and without a metronome. Later that night? A rave dance party.

    Would it help? Would it create a communal time feel recognition?
    Hell if I know, it sure would be fun though. I feel like writing a grant!
    Happy New Year!
    Great hearing and seeing you in Finland and thanks for coming down to the Jazz Standard.
    M@

    Comment by Matt Wilson — December 30, 2009 @ 2:45 pm

  16. I’ve never practiced with a metronome because I never foresaw having to play live with one! I think I agree with Jeff Berlin: surely ‘feel’ is more important than a mathematical understanding of time. I’ve played with many drummers, and they don’t play like metronomes – there are nuances of tempo that a good drummer (or any other instrumentalists) should use to create the feel of a piece of music. Time should be a free thing and not rigid.

    Comment by Liam Owen — December 30, 2009 @ 3:30 pm

  17. Sorry! Pressed the wrong button! I meant to finish by saying that I’ve always either practiced without rhythmical accompaniment or with CDs or with a tame drummer. I find that to be more useful for my approach to playing bass.

    Comment by Liam Owen — December 30, 2009 @ 3:32 pm

  18. Hi Dave

    Thanks for a fascinating discussion which I’ve only discovered. I think it shows what a huge area this is, not just in relation to metronomes, but also rhythm in general. This area is one that I’ve been working on over the past 20 years, and I posted a lengthy discussion of the whole concept of rhythm and time on my blog a while ago – in case anyone’s interested in reading it, it’s at:

    http://ronanguil.blogspot.com/2009/06/art-and-science-of-time.html

    Best

    Ronan

    Comment by Ronan Guilfoyle — December 31, 2009 @ 1:08 am

  19. […] Ethan Iverson relates some great metronome stories over at DO THE MATH, and the conversation continues below in comments. […]

    Pingback by Warm Wishes for the last of ‘09 and Happiest of ‘10. — December 31, 2009 @ 2:54 pm

  20. As a student and teacher, I think that practicing with a metronome is essential for developing the skill of playing with a metronome. For better or worse, more and more time is spent in (insert your DAW of choice), recording music that demands precise metronomic time. As electronic music continues to mature, playing with a metronome will become an even more valuable skill and music that forgoes metronomic time will become a more recognizable “sound”.

    Comment by Brian — December 31, 2009 @ 3:35 pm

  21. Really great stuff to think about. I’ve been working on some new music coming from an “out of time” perspective and it’s interesting to see it and hear it in all these new frameworks. I guess the real test is always when you go to play it with some other human beings…

    Brian, I like this quote: music that forgoes metronomic time will become a more recognizable β€œsound”. I’d say it already is recognizable, but you are giving a value to it in opposition to this metronomic quality, am I right? And again, those who argue for metronome work aren’t saying one should perform that way, merely that it can help steady and firm up one’s sense of time.

    Is a time feel that “forgoes metronomic time,” whether recognizable as a “sound” or not, something that can actually groove, in your opinion?

    Back to work…

    Comment by Dave Douglas — January 4, 2010 @ 2:03 pm

  22. […] complete and total war, my friends. Asked Jeff for his take on the comment thread and this was his response. I told him I had profound disagreements with much of this, and he […]

    Pingback by Jeff Berlin response to below comment thread on metronomes — January 6, 2010 @ 8:01 am

  23. My teacher in college once told me to throw away my metronome. We were working on playing tunes in an “out of time” way within an ensemble. He taught me that theres still time even when we play something “out of time” or in a free context. I think this is what Matt Wilson was talking about when he mentioned ground pulse. That relationship is profoundly important.

    I’m learning that when an ensemble plays together that the collective ground pulse is what really makes the music come to life. And that has nothing to do with metronomes. Its human beings coming together, and, either consciously or not, agreeing on a common vibration.

    I didnt throw away my metronome. I use it often. I think it helps me identify and grasp other ways of feeling time. In other words, practicing with the metronome helps give me an awareness of other time feels and can help me adapt to those changes. So when I get into a playing situation, be it a free band, a rock band or whatever, I will have practiced getting used to a different “ground pulse”.

    So does the metronome teach you feel? No. I think feel is learned through playing with other people, and the metronome can help prepare you for the myriad ways there are to feel.

    Thanks for the discussion folks

    Greg

    Comment by Greg Sinibaldi — January 6, 2010 @ 11:08 am

  24. I posted a couple of anecdotes about metronomes on my blog, but I wanted to throw my lot in on the actual question.

    I’ve done commercial work where I was playing with a click track, and at those moments I was eternally grateful for the work I’d done with a metronome. But as several people have mentioned, it’s not that way in a real band, ever.

    I’ve found this analogy useful- I think I got it from Michael Cain, the great pianist and one of my teachers. He said something to the effect of- as young players we often tend to think of the beat as a single dot, a spot to be hit (like the click of a metronome). In reality, the beat is a circle (think of a compass drawing a circle, it leaves that middle point- the metronome’s “beat”- but has much wider area). The interaction that happens inside and around that circle is where time feel and groove happen. Different musicians, and different musical styles, have very different relationships to that circle, and they change over time. In “jazz”, some of the most exciting rhythm sections have worked in the tension created by two or more players landing consistently at different points inside that circle.

    Comment by Pat Donaher — January 6, 2010 @ 8:49 pm

  25. Wayne Krantz uses a metronome as an integral part of his practicing. If you download his “rhythm” lesson on his website, you can see how.

    also of note

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0wiV5iFPfIs

    Comment by Joe — January 8, 2010 @ 1:34 pm

  26. You can swing with a metronome:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hTrxDxX18lE&feature=related

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TJm-vFhZQOw&feature=related

    Comment by UncleFestis — January 12, 2010 @ 7:11 pm

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