"Is it good to practice piano with a metronome?" I get asked this question a lot, and while many people might automatically answer "yes," I've seen that it really depends on what your goals are.
Here's my reply to someone who recently emailed me about this. (He plays rock and jazz and explained that he has trouble keeping a steady beat.)
"I think a metronome is good to use sometimes, but it's not perfect. Try it and see if you can do it, but it's more mechanical than the way we really play.
The good thing is that it will make you very aware of the steady beat and your own rhythm as you play. But if you get a little off the beat, it won’t adjust to you like a real drummer would. Instead, it makes you re-adjust in a very unnatural way. And when we play solo piano, we can get back to the beat in a way that feels more natural and musical then we can while playing against a mechanical beat.
I do suggest playing along with a drum beat if your keyboard has one or if you can find some online. But also practice without an accompanying beat, “listening” with your inner ear to the underlying pulse. Feel the pulse.
I’ve found that most piano students (even those who say they don’t keep time well) actually have a very good sense of musical time. They can keep a steady beat when they play something they know well. The difficulties arise when they play music that’s more challenging to them.
If you find that your beat keeps wavering, I suggest that you temporarily simplify what you’re playing. Play the left hand part alone and focus more on the beat than what you actually play with your fingers. Or simplify the rhythms you’re improvising with your right hand. Try this every day for a few weeks and see how much better your musical “time” gets. (Most people give up if it doesn’t improve right away. Keep going!) Then gradually let the music become more complex again, but keep focusing on the groove above all else. After a while it will become second nature to you.
The main point here is that your sense of time is probably pretty good. The “missing ingredient” with your piano playing is simply that you haven’t focused enough on keeping a steady beat while you play. A combination of all these different ways to practice will make a big difference in your playing!"
In short, I've seen that the actual attempt of trying to play steadily is by far the most important thing. And ironically, once you learn how to stay with a metronomic beat, your further practicing tends to become very passive. Many students stop keeping their own internal tempo at this point and merely let the metronome do the work. So they never really learn to do it for themselves and fall back into their old habits as soon as they play again without a mechanical timekeeper.
If your goal is to become able to keep a steady tempo, then yes, by all means use a metronome at times. But also try to maintain a steady beat on your own and always keep in mind that you have this potential. There is a steady beat somewhere inside you and all you need to do is pay attention to it as you play. This in itself has helped every student I've ever taught.
One very effective use of the metronome, on the other hand, is when you need help in practicing a technically difficult passage. Starting very slowly and gradually increasing the metronome's tempo will give you the kind of incremental practice you need to learn the challenging music with flow and precision. I used to do this with Bach's 2-Part Inventions. (For hours!)
As with anything musical, the practice technique we use depends on our exact goals. Once you identify your exact goal, then you can develop a practice routine that will get you where you want to be!
Do you know any pianists who would love to be able to improvise? Here are some free lessons to get them started. They'll thank you in the long run!