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Unexpected Lessons from the Metronome: How to Achieve Balance in Life

Life, like music, requires both discipline and flexibility to achieve balance in life.

For the past four months, I’ve devoted my practice time to learning Suite Bergamasque by Debussy. After a year of learning Tchaikovsky (and falling in love with his music), I wanted to return to the music of my soul. 

I’ve always found a home in Debussy’s music. His sound landscapes, aetherial tones, and play with tempo draw me in. Several of the movements have required a bit of speedwork, which for me always means practicing with a metronome.

Practicing with a metronome is often a love-hate relationship for musicians. It’s initially challenging to learn how to line up one’s playing with the metronome’s brutally consistent timekeeping ability. Later, however, it becomes a tool for developing and maintaining a consistent tempo or gradually increasing the tempo.

I’ve come to enjoy practicing with a metronome more than I ever thought possible. With minimal practice time each day (about 20 minutes), I seek to be as efficient as I can be with my time at the piano. Using the metronome often helps me find the efficiency I seek while providing me with data on my improvement (or lack thereof) as I gradually seek to increase my tempo. 

The only catch? If I practice too much with the metronome in genres that require copious amounts of rubato, my playing becomes stiff, stifled, and robotic and my performances lack the breath the composer demands of the piece. 

A Lesson in Limits

Metronomes are powerful tools for musicians because they hold you to the truth. They are as black and white as the piano keys, pinpointing areas of accuracy and inaccuracy. Try as you may, metronomes crowd out the possibility of intentional fluctuations in tempo such as accelerandos, ritardandos, or rubato playing. 

Its motto could be: "A steady tempo must be maintained."

And yet music isn't always about precision and accuracy, right vs. wrong, because music is truly about expression. It's about living beyond the boundary lines. It's about connecting soul to soul and communicating thoughts without words. Music goes beyond the metronome.

A Lesson in Liberation

As important as it is to maintain a consistent tempo and to eliminate unnecessary pauses in one’s playing, most musical performances should include touches of tempo fluctuations bringing moments of breath and life to the musical expression.

Working with Debussy’s music these past few months taught me a powerful lesson. In relying so heavily on the metronome to increase my tempos, I found my performances lacking the emotional effect I hoped to create in my playing. I’ve had to double back on my practicing and create more space for the rubato the music demands. 

I see similar parallels to my life. 

Creating Space for Breath

I must give space for breath by creating greater margins in my life. Just as music benefits from moments of rubato, so I do as well. 

I have the tendency to work without stopping, schedule every minute of my day (you should see my spreadsheet), and relentlessly pursue my goals. My work ethic has served me well in many ways. And, it has also caused me harm physically, emotionally, and creatively. 

In my desire to do, become, succeed, provide for my family, build a new future, and not fail, there are times I have forgotten to BE. I’m pretty sure I understand the root motivators for my behaviors (people pleasing, trauma-responses, scarcity mindset, and living in survival mode to name a few). 

However, if I keep living my life like an unrelenting mechanical metronome, I will miss opportunities to savor the moments of life I deeply desire to experience. Those moments are the ones that fuel my soul and bring breath and rejuvenation back to my weary bones. 

How to Achieve Balance in Life: Limits and Liberation

As a business owner, I often listen to training and motivational speakers that talk about  the importance of consistency and habit formation for personal growth and professional development. I agree, AND…. perhaps sometimes life is best lived in the in-betweens– in the places where we give space and allowance for breath in the margins of life.

So what am I saying? Do we need the confines and the limits of a metronome or do we need the freedom and flexibility to abandon the limits and to create space for breath? 

I am saying we need both. 

Music and life require both the structure and accountability of systems (the metronome) AND space to create an ebb and flow in life (rubato). 

How to Live with Margins

I am certainly no expert in living with margins; I am still learning. However, I will share a few things I've put into practice in my life that I think are helping.  

  1. I take a social media and technology break on the weekends (as much as possible). I keep my phone on in case of emergencies but usually keep it in a different room or out of arm's reach. This provides me with space from outside noise, more time with my own thoughts, and time to decompress.  

  2. I take a short daily walk in nature to clear my mind, breathe the fresh air, move my body, and re-center without distractions (when I can tolerate the weather here in New England). I listen to a meditative Spotify playlist while walking that helps me ground down and make the most of the time.  

  3. I make a habit of making time for the things that bring me joy. For me, that’s practicing piano for 20 minutes each day. These precious minutes remind me who I am by returning me to my first love; playing the piano. I often use these minutes to escape the rest of my life, gain personal insights, and bask in the beauty of music.

  4. I block off times on my calendar when I don't want to schedule appointments, meetings, or lessons. Sometimes I give those minutes to myself to simply BE and rest. Other times I devote those minutes to family time. 

  5. When creativity and inspiration hit, I run with it. I allow myself to work hard when I’m in the creative flow and allow myself to rest when not.  I balance the unexpected bursts of creative energy, with an ongoing list of tasks to do that require little to no creativity.  This way my business is always moving forward even if I’m not “feeling” it that day, but it also gives me space to give space for my creativity. 

The journey to living with margins is a lifelong practice. Here's to embracing the rubatos in life, one intentional breath at a time!


Food for Thought

What’s one way you can create more marginal space in your life? (a place for flexibility, creativity, and space to rest)?

Envision how it will feel to intentionally create a life that allows you to slow down when needed (or speed up). 

I encourage you to create that space today!  Remember, if you find this challenging, you are not alone!  With practice, we can all begin to craft a life we love with space and flexibility for the eb and flow of life. 


If you are looking for additional support and encouragement in your musical journey, check out Notes to Self: A Guided Mindful Practice Journal designed to bring mindfulness and celebration to your practice sessions. 

Are you an adult musician looking for community with other adults actively pursuing the skill of mastering an instrument?  If so, you are invited to join my Facebook Group, Notes to Self Musical Community: A Supportive Group for Adults. I hope to see you there!

To have these "Insights From The Piano Bench" essays land directly in your inbox, subscribe to my monthly blog digest newsletter. Let's explore what music can teach us about life together. 

If you are looking to incorporate piano lessons as part of the margins in your life, contact me to learn more about my remote piano studio. I’d be honored to help you bring the joy of music into your heart and home!


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