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The Tools of the Trade

If you get stuck, draw with a different pen. Change your tools; it may free your thinking. - Paul Arden

As I have mentioned several times, getting creative with your practicing techniques can yield fantastic results. Any and every exercise can be tweaked and tailored to your needs. In Dig Deep, I elaborated on the fact that we need to turn off the automatic pilot and really use our mind to analyze the problem and find ways to solve it.

Using your imagination to come up with new exercises is not only fun, it fires up the synapses in your brain, solidifying your skills.

Technology can be your friend in this area. In addition to listening to the repertoire you are working on and browsing the internet for articles and videos about music making (read here for ways to incorporate these into your routine), there are several tools you can use to enhance your practice sessions. Having written in detail about how to record yourself, I will now turn to a few other tools of the trade.


The metronome is my basic tool. I recommend that all my students use it regularly during their practice sessions. The metronome will solidify your inner groove and train you to keep a solid tempo… unless your turn it on and tune it out! Make sure you are paying attention! One of my favorite metronome technique is the tempo build up, when I take a passage and build it from a very slow tempo to one that is slightly faster than the performance tempo. It’s an oldie, but a goodie. I mix in a little rhythm and accent work, and voilà! Another method I like is to move the beat of the metronome to different beats in the measure, e.g. the metronome will line up with the second sixteenth note of a beat rather than the first one. This creates the perfect amount of intellectual challenge and will help solidify the passage in your mind. (There are several other methods that can be utilized with a metronome. To be continued…)

Make sure you find a metronome that is easy to hear and to use. My go-to metronome is my Seiko SQ-50V. It’s cheap, simple, loud, and has a basic, user-friendly dial. It is my first love, and I will remain loyal to it until the end. (Feel free to send me a note if you are curious to know how I feel about digital metronomes!). I am also a big fan of the Seiko SQ100-88 (it has been discontinued but its current replacement appears to be the SQ200). It includes almost all the features of the Doctor Beat (super loud, tempi going from 30 to 250, several rhythms and measure meters, and built-in drone generator), but in a much more compact format.

Tuner and drone/chord generator

Since so much of our work evolves around intonation, a device with a tuner and a drone and/or chord generator will prove to be a great investment! Because our intonation is, more often than not, based on the harmonic context, I use a drone generator a lot more than a standard tuner. You simply set the device on a given note (usually the tonic of the piece or passage you are working on) and play along with it, paying extremely close attention to the quality of the intonation in relation with the drone. I prefer to work on short passages, at different tempi (although mostly slowly), and both with and without vibrato.

For this work I also turn to my Seiko SQ100-88, which gives me a wide range of notes at different tuning (415 to 446).

Speed modifying devices

I do not have experience with this type of work, but I hear great comments from colleagues who either use it themselves or have students use it. Many have recommended the Amazing Slow Downer by Roni. It can be either downloaded on a MAC, PC, or as an app on your phone (lite version is free and full version is $15). The software allows you to adjust the speed of the music, going from 20% (one fifth speed) to 200% (double speed), without changing the pitch. You can also change the pitch in semi-tones to transpose to a new key, or adjust it in cents (100ths of a semi-tone) to match your intonation (for recordings that are slightly below or above the standard A that you use). You simply import the piece or movement you are working on to the program and play along. Sounds like something I should definitely experiment with in the near future!

On the go

When on the go, I use the Tunable app on my phone. It integrates full metronome, tuner, drone/chord generator, and recorder functions in one application. I still prefer my stand alone devices, mostly because they tend to be a lot louder and because I find dials a lot faster to use, but this app has been extremely useful to me whenever I’m away from home.

These are only a few of the technological tools available to musicians, and they can be used in many more and different ways.

I would love to know: How about you? What tools do you use, and how do you use them?


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