The Metronome

The metronome is an essential but often overlooked tool for practicing and improving  your time feel. Rhythm is arguably the most important component of music so it’s important to have a strong understanding of it.

Some of you may have already attempted to use a metronome in your practice. Good! However, if you’re relatively new to using it, it’s almost certain that you’ve experienced a lot of error and frustration in attempting to play along to the click. Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Many students give up at this point and never use it again, exclaiming “I can play with perfect time without it, why do I need to use it?” The difficult truth is that you just suck at playing in time with the metronome, and avoiding it isn’t going to improve your time at all.

Like with all difficult tasks in life, it’s important we break things down into more manageable segments so that we can start to make even the smallest improvements. What is the simplest way to use a metronome? Don’t start with scales, or arpeggios, or anything else that’s fancy. I get my students to start with only one note and to play exactly at the same time with the click, IE quarter notes. Most people will be able to lock in with the metronome after a few tries, sometimes drifting away in time and then quite often fluctuating back into time. The important part is to lock in so tight that the metronome click “disappears” into the note you’re playing. If quarter notes are too difficult, try half notes or even whole notes.

Once you get used to this, your internal time keeping (IE, without the metronome) will vastly improve. Now it’s time to start to introduce different subdivisions of the beat. The most logical step after quarter notes would be eighth notes. Then eighth note triplets, then sixteenth notes. Now you’ve covered the most common subdivisions you will encounter in music. Always start slow (about 60bpm) and increase in small increments. Remember, the goal is precision and accuracy, not speed.

Now that you have the basic subdivision, what can you do? Well, having strong fundamentals will open many doors for you. The next step I recommend is to get the classic book “Syncopation for the Modern Drummer” by Ted Reed. It’s a book that contains most of the possible permutations of rhythmic figures based around quarter, eighth, triplet, and sixteenth notes. Again, start slow and play each figure perfectly with the metronome. If you can get through the whole book, you will be prepared for so many different musical situations.

What to do after the Ted Reed book becomes easy for you? Now we can start to think about interpreting the metronome clicks on different parts of the meter. One common way to do this is to play the metronome at half the speed you are intending to play and interpret the clicks on beats 2 and 4. This mimics a snare drum which is often placed on beats 2 and 4 in most popular forms of music today. Some other options for the placement of the click include: only on beat 4, only on the “+” of beat 4, only on the off beats (kind of like a reggae rhythm guitar), only on beat 1, etc.

One thing to remind yourself in the journey to improve your time, is that it’s not about becoming as accurate as a metronome. Music and rhythm can breathe and flex and be imperfect yet beautiful at the same time. That’s the end goal, to create beautiful music. Remember to keep some of that “human” element and that even if you mess up once in a while, it’s what makes music all the more interesting!

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Understanding Modes

The modes of the major scale are a great source of musical material for compositions and improvisations, but are often confusing for those who are just beginning to approach this topic. I’m going to try and lay this out as simply as possible.

First of all, you need to understand the major scale and how it’s built. Let’s take the C major scale as an example. The notes are C, D, E, F, G, A, B. Now imagine this same group of notes, but change the “tonic” or starting note to each of the different notes in the scale. What you get is something like this (name of each mode is given at the start):

  1. (Ionian/major) C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
  2. (Dorian) D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D
  3. (Phrygian) E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E
  4. (Lydian) F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F
  5. (Mixolydian) G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G
  6. (Aeolian/natural minor) A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A
  7. (Locrian) B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B

Notice that because there are seven different notes in a major scale, there are seven possible modes of the major scale. When naming them, you name it from the appropriate new tonic of each mode, e.g. G Mixolydian or E Phyrigian.

Now let’s take a look at the interval pattern of these modes. An interval is the distance between two notes that are measured in units of tones. A tone is the equivalent of a two fret spacing on the guitar. For example, the interval between the notes C and D are a tone, while the interval between E and F are a half-tone.

  1. Ionian: 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 1, 0.5
  2. Dorian: 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 1, 0.5, 1
  3. Phrygian: 0.5, 1, 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1
  4. Lydian: 1, 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 0.5
  5. Mixolydian: 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 0.5, 1
  6. Aeolian: 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1
  7. Locrian: 0.5, 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 1

Where we start to learn the characteristics of each mode is when we start to apply these interval patterns from the same tonic note (C).

  1. C Ionian: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
  2. C Dorian: C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb, C
  3. C Phrygian: C, Db, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C
  4. C Lydian: C, D, E, F#, G, A, B, C
  5. C Mixolydian: C, D, E, F, G, A, Bb, C
  6. C Aeolian: C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C
  7. C Locrian: C, Db, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb, C

Now you can clearly see which notes are the same or different in comparison to the major scale. From here you can categorize the modes as either major or minor modes, which is defined by the the presence of a major 3rd or a minor 3rd. Major modes are: Ionian, Lydian, Mixolydian. Minor modes are: Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian, and Locrian.

If I were to vaguely define the overall feel of each these modes, I would describe them like this:

  1. Ionian: bright, happy, stable
  2. Dorian: a minor scale with a bit of brightness, common in jazz and pop
  3. Phrygian: a darker minor scale reminiscent of Flamenco and Spanish music
  4. Lydian: a brighter major scale with mystical qualities
  5. Mixolydian: bluesy
  6. Aeolian: minor scale reminiscent of classical music
  7. Locrian: weird sound, rarely used outside of jazz

Don’t be too concerned if it still doesn’t make sense to you. At the very least, play the modes in the third list provided and you will immediately HEAR the difference even if you don’t understand why. Try using them in your compositions and improvisations, and let the theory make sense later on!

Pomodoro Technique for Practicing

The Pomodoro technique is a useful time management tool that can make your practice more focused and effective. This is a tool that has many applications and we will take a look at how we can use this technique to improve our music practice.

The concept is simple: work in short but focused bursts of uninterrupted productivity. The name pomodoro comes from the Italian word for tomato, because the inventor of the method used a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato.

Traditionally, the pomodoro technique uses 25 minute intervals of work followed by a short break of three to five minutes, but there is no reason to be attached to these numbers. I’ve used the technique to practice in shorter intervals when the practice material took shorter to complete than that, or were particularly mentally demanding. I find the interval lengths should have an inverse relationship with the amount of energy and focus being used: IE shorter lengths with high intensity, longer lengths with low intensity. My breaks were generally around the 5 minute mark.

The full method goes a little bit beyond just breaking up work into chunks. The complete process goes like this:

  1. Plan out what the practice item is
  2. Set the timer
  3. Uninterrupted work until the timer goes off
  4. Record the completion of this interval
  5. If you’ve completed less than 4 intervals, take a short break (3-5 min is suggested)
  6. If you’ve completed 4 intervals, take a longer break and reset this count

We all have about a million things that we can improve on, so prioritization is going to be an important part of the planning stage. It’s fairly simple: practice the most difficult items first.

The greatest benefit to this method is the sense of achievement you will feel as you cross off completed tasks from your list. As a part of using this method you will also have a record of your tasks completed which adds to this feeling. It will motivate you to complete even more tasks!

My Teaching Style

One of the most important factors in determining your success as a student guitarist is finding the right teacher for you, and many prospective students rightly prioritize this. I want to talk a bit about how I approach guitar lessons, where I might differ from other teachers, and how I might be the right teacher for you. For those of you reading who are teachers, I want to share some tips on what I find works best for improving your students’ abilities.

My philosophy and approach can be described as a coaching style. In other words, I like to incorporate a lot of doing in my lessons. Music is kind of like sports, where we train our body to make precise and accurate movements, and it’s important not to get too caught up in the theory before you can actually play something. I firmly believe that the main barrier between your musical conception and execution is your technique. If your technique is sound, then it is only a matter of time and practice to execute any piece of music. In a one hour lesson, this might mean I spend up to 45 minutes of actual practicing and playing. What we do in a lesson is how I want a student to practice at home.

Another role I find myself in, is the role of the problem solver. Every student will have unique obstacles that need to be overcome. If they’re common problems, they are easy to solve. Unique ones will take experience and a keen sense of observation to understand and solve the problems that a student may encounter. I will also get my students to try and solve problems on their own, with my guidance. My goal is to have students eventually become their own teachers, so that they may continue on their musical journey long after we’ve parted ways.

The greatest gratification I get from teaching is when I see a student’s face light up with excitement and joy from overcoming a challenge they work so hard at. It’s only then when I feel like I’ve actually contributed something meaningful to someone’s life, which is my core motivation. With the right mindset, music can be an endlessly challenging and rewarding experience throughout your entire life. The cycle I try to establish is something like: identifying the challenge – overcoming the obstacle – enjoy a sense of accomplishment – get motivated to take on more challenges. I want to destroy a student’s preconceived notions about what they believe they are capable of, in order to achieve things they wouldn’t have even thought of.

If these are points that resonate with you, feel free to inquire about lessons in the Toronto area. Hopefully we’ll be a good match!