Nobody wants a drumline that can’t keep time. We all know the metronome is the answer—but how?
The metronome is the most important tool a musician can own, and in no section is that more true than a drumline or marching percussion ensemble.
Even if you buy all the best metronomes for drumlines, you still need to use it correctly.
But, if simply turning on the metronome was enough, everyone would play in time and that would be the end of this discussion.
As far back as ~2011, Vic Firth has been publishing videos on the right (and wrong) ways to use a metronome in marching percussion.
Here’s Brian Mason telling it straight—
Don’t have time for the old school Vic video? No problem.
Here’s the deal…
The WORST way to use metronome with a percussion ensemble
- Turn it on to the quarter note
- End of list.
Too many groups fail to utilize their metronome to its full potential.
Sure, turning on the standard quarter note with a subdivision here or there is simple and effective.
But it’s just the beginning.
If you stop there, you miss out on so much more potential to build musicianship and tempo internalization that advanced metronome training can bring.
Read on to find out how you SHOULD be using a metronome when practicing all your favorite free drumline music charts, front ensemble/pit, or full marching percussion ensemble.
How to use a metronome with a drumline
I’ll cover many techniques and strategies to using a metronome for improving timing, time-keeping, rhythmic interpretation, technique and countless other aspects of being a percussionist that can apply to both the individual and the ensemble.
For each example, I’ll use 4/4 time like most blank drumline sheet music would for the sake of simplicity and consistency.
Quarter Note Subdivision
By far the most common use of the metronome is to give every single downbeat.
This is the most versatile function, as it can be used against a wide variety of rhythms (either occurring far apart [Fig. 1] or in rapid succession [Fig. 2]), as well as when keeping time for large ensembles (different musical lines and visual phrases need a common denominator).
The use of a metronome in this manner is common simply because it works, and it works well.
It is always a great idea to have AT LEAST a metronome on and set to the quarter note, even when working on technique or reading through a piece of music for the first time.
Using a metronome in the manner will not only strengthen your time-keeping skills, but set a strong foundation for when you work up to the set tempo and add more performers.
I always tell my students to learn the music (rhythms, dynamics, sticking, etc) correctly the first time so it doesn’t have to be forgotten and re-learned at a later time.
In terms of the performance aspect, the quarter note also gives a strong pulse that can be felt by the performer and conveyed to other performers and the audience.
Commonly used pulse indicators include a subtle rising and falling of the body, nods of the head, and stick or mallet visuals.
Giving the performer a consistent quarter throughout practice will allow them to internalize that pulse while working on improving their timing, technique, rhythmic interpretation, and everything else that makes a musician great.
Eighth and Sixteenth Note Subdivision
When problems in rhythmic interpretation arise, it becomes necessary to have a mechanized subdivision to smooth it all out.
Discrepancies in rhythmic interpretation are most common in younger performers, as the difference in strength between their right and left hands is much more pronounced (a physical reason) and understanding of rhythms is at its weakest (a mental one).[Fig. 3] shows a basic exercise that can help a student smooth out their eighth notes while mixing in a few quarter notes.
These quarter notes allow the student to listen for the metronome clicks between the notes, allowing them to determine if they are fast or slow depending on where the subdividing note lies.
Listening for the metronome in between played notes is an essential technique all musicians must master.
Each subdivision should not just be heard, but felt.
Most upbeats are easy to interpret as an “up” motion and, in the case of marching band, translates to the foot being as far away from the ground as possible.
In the front ensemble, it’s common for the performer to pulse (either with the whole body, the upper body, head, or mallets), with the upbeat lining up with the up motion of the pulse.
Switching the metronome to the sixteenth note subdivision digs even deeper when it comes to fixing rhythmic interpretation.
The most useful times to utilize the sixteenth note subdivision are when learning the sixteenth note check patterns [Fig. 4] and when playing rhythmically-dense parts at slow tempi [Fig. 5].
Giving so many subdivisions is a useful tool when building up the foundational skills of younger and less-experienced players, as they might not be able to subdivide while simultaneously working on their technique.
Once the performer is comfortable with basic metronome use, that doesn’t mean that the metronome is no longer useful!
Since we’ve started with quarter notes and subdivided to the smaller beats (eighth and sixteenth notes), why not try larger beats (half and whole notes)?
On their own, half and whole notes may not seemingly lend themselves readily to building time-keeping skills.
But, they can be used to quickly expose stretching of time in both the individual and ensemble over the course of a couple measures or phrases.
When starting out using this approach, it’s best to use a basic exercise and start small (half notes) and build up the space between clicks.
In [Fig. 6], a basic half note click is shown with a basic exercise.
Even with more basic exercises, sticking can be altered or dynamics and accent patterns can be used to really work on timing while playing more complex/musical parts.
In [Fig. 7], the same exercise from the previous example is played with the metronome on beats 2 and 4.
This allows the player to “groove” a little more and work on their performing skills.[Fig. 8] and [Fig. 9] take it a step further by using only one click per measure.
Fewer than one click per measure can be done, but its general effectiveness begins to decrease the fewer clicks you use.
Another benefit of using the metronome for bigger beats is that it forces the student to get their head up and communicate the tempo with other students.
Big beats can cause a little uncertainty, so relying on your fellow performers can build tempo control in the ensemble and overall musicianship.
Four On, Four Off
Many modern metronomes or metronome apps allow the user to set up a clicking pattern, rather than having evenly-spaced clicks.
This strategy can be effective for a wide variety of situations, but I will cover my general approach of Four On, Four Off.
As the name implies, the clicks will sound once per beat for four beats, followed by four beats of silence, then repeat.
That silence can be used for everything from building up general time-keeping skills to isolating specific physical short-comings (slow left hands in “Exercise 1”) to more mental ones (playing a phrase too quickly).[Fig. 10] shows a timing exercise that can either be played with one hand or alternating, depending on what the performer or group needs the most work on.
Drum Machines and Songs
In order to break up the monotony of working with a metronome, other tools may be used to keep working on timing and rhythmic accuracy.
Many modern metronomes, as well as many free apps, give the user a handful of quickly-accessible drum beats.
Anything from a simple rock beat to a complex rhumba can be useful to a student working on almost any exercise.
They can help with feeling a certain rhythm or pulse, as well, which will make the transition from exercises and warm-ups to show music much smoother.
If the student is feeling especially brave, they can load up the drum loop with plenty of counter rhythms in order to work on filling the space seamlessly with their parts (a useful skill for bass drummers).
Full songs may also be used during exercises. Bonus if it’s hiphop beats for drumline — turn on Ye and let it play.
Everything from EDM to pop to classic rock and country can give a distinct beat (as long as it’s a clean recording done in a studio or performed live with a click in the performers’ ears).
The beat get the students thinking not just about tempo, but maintaining tempo while listening to other parts that don’t like up beat-for-beat.
Playing an exercise along to a full song may seem tedious on the surface, but students may be surprised at how quickly their favorite song of the week can make practice go.
For front ensemble students, it may sometimes be extremely dissonant if the exercise and song are separated by a minor second or diminished fifth, but the lack of harmony becomes less noticeable with each rep.
It can also be ignored if the student takes extra care to focus on the drum track.
Whether you practice with a simple metronome, a phone or web app, or a simple music player, remember to relax and have fun!
Mixing up the listening source can turn that five-minute struggle to get through the exercise packet once into a thirty-minute jam session that builds a wide variety of skills needed for the big performance.