Jeff Berlin response to below comment thread on metronomes

Posted by: Dave Douglas on January 6, 2010 @ 8:01 am
Filed under: Dave Douglas (Artist Thoughts), Music

It’s 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 replied that “It is a point of view to be discussed (as opposed to disgust).” Have at it.

The idea of practicing is to learn, not to perform. But, playing with a metronome insists that one performs, not learns! This makes it an anti-academically friendly device since the study of anything new is best done out of time, not in it! Example: try and learn a new language “in-time”!

Secondly, I almost have never met a player/teacher who didn’t confuse learning with art. They are not the same principles and do not require the same approach. This means that you don’t learn how to play the same way that you play. In academic practicing, one has no need to practice in metronomic time, no reason whatsoever. It is a popular belief and it is a myth. Most teachers do not separate learning from performing in their lessons which is why so many players really aren’t getting much better. Just realize that in art, every great player on every instrument who got their time and feel didn’t get it from a metronome.

And lastly, name any new experience anywhere that requires the learning of that thing in time. Even a child’s first steps, or cooking a new recipe, or one’s first driving lessons are all “out of time”. If this is so, and if everything that is learned is best learned out of time, then why do some musicians go against the same logic that applies to everything else? Metronomes have no history of helping one play in time because the moment that a conductor waves his baton, or the drummer plays his first beat, the entire metronome lessons is now negated, replaced by a HUMAN approach to time and feel. Here is proof! No musician in Africa, no musician in South America, no ethnic group anywhere in the world, no regional band, nobody anywhere on Earth learned how to feel music and play it in time by using a metronome. If just about everything on Earth does not require an in-time apprenticeship to learn how to do well, then why would a musician try to push a principle that has no precedence in anything else that is learned in-time.

Thanks for reading.

An ad from Metronome Magazine:


  1. It’s funny, I tend to agree with Jeff with the openings of his paragraphs, but then he and I diverge greatly. There is a place for out-of-time practicing. Making sure all the notes are right, checking fingerings, all very technical nuts-and-bolts kinds of things are important to check. But perhaps more importantly, they’re better done IN TIME and SLOWLY. Music happens on a timeline, and for any sense of context, one needs to preserve those temporal-spatial relationships. As for his comment of learning a new language “in time…” Yes, it’s one thing to learn the grammar and vocabulary of a language at one’s own pace. But language, especially spoken language, functions on the level of putting words together into sentences, and if you can’t speak the words one after another coherently then it doesn’t really matter how much grammar you know! I’ve learned more about languages from being immersed in them at the speed of life.

    I’d like Jeff to elaborate on the difference between “learning” and “performing.” Because I highly concur that “practicing” and “playing” are not the same thing at all, but he doesn’t really explain himself. And what is “practicing” if not academic?

    For me, the metronome is a practicing aid that replaces the time of the drummer or the conductor. It also improves my own internal HUMAN sense of time, learning how certain tempos feel. The human-ness of rhythm and groove comes in how the space between metronome ticks is divided and felt. And for anyone that deals with programmed elements (loops, drum machines, film scores to click, etc), a metronome is a vital part of our educational and performance vocabulary.

    Comment by Ryshpan — January 6, 2010 @ 9:13 am

  2. In light of the statement “the moment that a conductor waves his baton, or the drummer plays his first beat…” how would this approach apply to young drummers (or conductors, for that matter), where “time” IS part of the musical expression?

    Comment by Adam — January 6, 2010 @ 9:36 am

  3. 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


    Comment by Greg Sinibaldi — January 6, 2010 @ 11:43 am

  4. Saying that it’s important to practice things out of time and out of the context of a performance and then using African and south American music as an example is contradiction. Those players literally learn by playing in time with an ensemble (without the help of a metronome of course but in time) I’ve seen it happen because I AM from south america.

    Jeff Berlin seems more interested in proving everyone wrong than actually helping anyone get better as a musician.

    Comment by Juanma Trujillo — January 7, 2010 @ 12:13 am

  5. What Juanma said …

    Comment by Mike Grimaldi — January 7, 2010 @ 7:27 am

  6. I’m not sure I understand what Jeff is getting at in his response. I don’t want to argue semantics, but in my experience, academic teaching of music almost fetishizes the metronome. How is that “unacademic”. Second, one can never practice completely “out of time”. Everything has an innate rhythm, starting with the body’s basic functions. They’re not metronomic, but they do in many ways govern how we operate and yes, practice. Again, I don’t get it…

    Comment by Pat Donaher — January 7, 2010 @ 7:41 am

  7. A bit of a tempest in a teapot here, because there are lots of different ways to practice and learn. Some with, some without a metronome. Why only one?

    Jeff’s stridency surprises me, and I have to say that I have learned things in thinking about what Jeff says and working with it. Learning is the goal, after all. Why? So we have the sustenance to continue learning more. That’s why this discussion fascinates me. Jeff has a school in Florida where one can look more deeply into his ideas about playing and learning. Maybe he’ll respond here, but he does seem outnumbered. Also, he sounds like he’s had this argument before…many times.

    Leaving aside Jeff’s analogies (cooking, walking, languages), which can all be argued, there’s the simple goal of awareness.

    Working with a digital tuner, I am reminded that I like notes better a little flat, and sharp sounds square to me.

    Working with a metronome, I find that I like to play in front of the beat.

    To be aware of those tendencies is to be able to counteract them and to play with them. I don’t want to always play the same – that would sound boring. So the awareness of my personal traits forces me to *practice* playing differently to offset my habits. That’s not performing, because it often sounds *forced* or contrived: I would never bring that on stage.

    The metronome makes me face up to my tendencies in an objective way. There are many other practices I have found useful, as most of you know, but this is perhaps the main one. Learning a variety of means.

    Of course this discussion never ends, and practice is a personal thing that everyone will do in his or her own way. Plenty more to be discussed (without disgust).

    Comment by Dave Douglas — January 7, 2010 @ 11:24 am

  8. I’m also somewhat taken aback by Jeff’s stridency. In Europe, most trained musicians develop great musicality but lack ‘time’ in the way that African and American (North and South) musicians have time. Although it’s true that when a learner is acquiring a particularly difficult micro-skill, ‘time’ is sometimes suspended, while s/he deals with a particularly knotty problem, but I ask my students to stand and move as they practise, and to practise with a metronome, once the focus is on applying the new skill in context. Jeff is wrong to suggest that languages are learned ‘out of time’. It’s true that learners often wish that time would stop to make learning easier, but we need to learn to listen in real time, even if we speak or play at a slower tempo. He’s right about the distinction between performance and practice, but the key factor for me is tempo. The metronome is not inimical to the acquisition of technique, time or ‘feel’ if used intelligently. Of course, it would always be better to develop a strong rhythmic sense by learning as part of a group, but, as John Patitucci demonstrates very clearly, when it comes to walking bass, setting the metronome on two and four is very useful, because the player has to provide one and three. Surely the answer is to encourage all players to develop all aspects of their musicianship by all means possible. By the way, Dave, I also tend to play ‘on top of the beat’ when I play jazz, but enjoy sitting back when playing latin grooves. I’ve been a pro since 1976 and still practise with a metronome AND without.
    Best wishes, Terry Pack (London)

    Comment by Terry Pack — January 7, 2010 @ 4:35 pm

  9. Terry Pack said:

    > Although it’s true that when a learner is acquiring a particularly
    > difficult micro-skill, ‘time’ is sometimes suspended, while s/he deals
    > with a particularly knotty problem…

    This gets at what seems to be missing from this conversation – what and why we’re practicing. As Dave says, Jeff Berlin is a tremendous musician, but it’s not as if his reputation as a blistering chops machine is unfounded. In short, I’m sure he’s spent a lot more time dealing with knotty problems than most. (Obviously Jeff is not only a tremendous player but a well-rounded one and I certainly don’t say this to paint him as some one-dimensional shredder – but I would certainly find it hard to argue that he hasn’t spent his practice time somewhat differently than many reading this.)

    For that matter, note that for his three examples that make sense – walking, cooking, and driving – speed could be regarded as an element of “better.” Unlike learning a new language, where there is such a thing as too fast as well as too slow (and which, as Terry says, is best done in-time after a certain point).

    I suspect we could distill this down to having something to do with the demands of learning procedural skills vs. honing more holistic proficiencies, with a number of stops in between.

    Comment by Tom Benton — January 10, 2010 @ 12:59 pm

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