Simple Metronome Construction Kit
A. MATERIALS NEEDED
- A length of string.
- Weight to attach to string. Fishing line or curtain weights work well. Pebbles may be used for a little rock music.
- First aid kit (optional).
- It is important to start with the right string. The string should be no longer than one half of the director's height. For rehearsals, one may use the end of one's rope, but for performance a quality instrument is desirable. Here are some suggestions:
- For soft music use one-ply yarn (una corda).
- For Handel's Water Music, or sea shanties, use fishing line.
- For Bach airs, a G string is authentic.
- For Gospel music use a golden cord if possible. A silver cord may be substituted, but remember, "Some day the silver cord will break."
- Lutherans may wish to purchase the Concordia special.
- For dance music, some directors prefer twine.
- For all other music, ordinary string will do just fine. But see footnote 1.
- Make a loop in one end. Attach a small weight to the other end, and to keep the string taut and firm (the technical name for this is tautology or firmata). Slip the loop over the index finger of the left hand and check the length of the pendulum thus created. If the weight rubs against your toe as it swings, this will disturb the tempo (rubato), so the string should be shortened. For 'cut time,' cut the string in half. Do not make the loop too large or it may slip off your finger and fall to the floor, necessitating a 'pick-up beat.' Beware of the impulse to go to any length to impress your musicians: it is embarrassing to trip on one's metronome (cardiologists call this 'skipping a beat').
- Start the weight swinging with an elegant motion of the left wrist, and observe the pattern made by the moving weight.
- If the weight swings directly past one's legs like a pendulum, the speed is allegro. If the weight oscillates in slow loops or circles, the speed is andante, a term derived from the poet Dante's musical wife Ann, who moved in the best circles of the day. Never use a borrowed string, because the speed is always lento. Some directors like to show off by producing their metronome from a magician's hat - presto! However, basically the metronome will indicate one of two speeds as above: (a) fast, and (b) slow. Speed (a) is often indicated in the score by a tempo.
- If the string stops moving before the music is finished, then the choir sang too slowly. Adjust the choir's speed, unless this is a chronic condition, in which case lengthen the string.
- If the string is still moving when the music finishes, the choir sang too fast (stringendo). Adjust the choir's speed so that it finishes at the exact moment the weight stops moving. In very difficult pieces it may be helpful to have a pair of scissors handy for a precise cut-off.
- If the choir sings every piece at the same pace, the singers are probably tired (listlesso tempo). Put away your metronome and dismiss the rehearsal. Some directors have adapted the metronome, by substituting elastic for string, so that they can cast the weight at offending singers and retrieve it by pulling it back in. This may be the origin of the old term beat-nick, or beatnik. A direct hit will get most singers' attention but an apologiatura should immediately be offered. Good manners must always be stringently observed.
- If the string breaks (broken cord), the music is too weighty for the choir. This is the only infallible method of objective repertoire evaluation known to musicians, and is in itself worth the price of the instrument alone. Do not repair the string, as ties disturb the rhythm. Get a new string.
- While using the metronome, do not attempt to direct with your left hand, or you may do mortal (grave) injury to someone. Keep the first aid kit handy in case of memory lapse.
- Like any precision string instrument, this metronome should be treated with care. Do not allow the string to become twisted or tangled. Store the string and weight in a cool, dry place, such as the base of the podium (string base), or suspend it from the branch of any large indoor plant (tre corde). High-strung directors have been known to use ceiling hooks for storage.
D. HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
- This simple and inexpensive method of keeping time is said to have been invented in 1534 by Orlando di Lasso (an Italian cowboy singer), when he was choirmaster at a church in Rome. Authorized by papal concordat, its use spread to other countries and other communions.
- In Renaissance times large choirs with multiple choruses used as many as four at once (thus inventing the string quartet).
- When the clockwork metronome was invented in 1814, the older method fell sadly into disuse. Fortunately, examples were preserved in Swiss bank vaults by the well-known metro-gnomes of Zurich, and recent research by musicologists has brought them to light. Documentation is on file at the Arizona State University in (of course) Tempi.
Footnote 1. - More exotic refinements have been reported in the literature, such as silk thread for oriental music, coloured string for dinner music (cordon bleu), and even the simultaneous use of different lengths of string for 12-tone music (scordatura); but for the most part these are regarded as unworthy of attention by the serious conductor. Beware of waxed strings made of candlewick - unless you like your director to wax eloquent while shedding little light. Some directors love to tell stories, so may appreciate a model made with good yarn. One modern development should, however, be mentioned for the safety of the reader. It is prudent in some electronic music to use an insulated cord (ground bass).
[Second Edition (c) 1997 by Wilbur Skeels. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or retransmitted without inclusion of this paragraph. May not be reproduced in any form or at any event for which a fee is charged, without written permission. Write to 1275 Hendrix Avenue, Thousand Oaks, CA 91360.]