Few musicians doubt that practicing with a metronome can help them build a stronger, more solid sense of time. Yet, I seem to encounter even fewer who really put a good deal of thought into exactly how they utilize it. All too often I hear someone say, "Use a metronome", and the discussion ends there. Examining your approach can go a long way towards making your practice more musical and inspiring. Below are four key ideas I feel are very helpful.
Use musical sounds, not mechanical
For me, there's nothing more mind-numbingly stiff than the robotic BLEEP-bloop-bloop-bloop sound of many metronomes. In fact, that's where I feel most metronomes or metronome apps do a poor job. They put little to no effort into their sounds. I recently did a lesson with a student who pondered aloud why he enjoyed playing along to my metronome more than in his own personal practice.
In that spirit, it's helpful to note that your regular practice metronome needn't even be a metronome. A device-powered app or computer DAW that has built-in percussion sounds can really open things up. One of the things I did after purchasing my first computer is create a simple quarter-note cowbell and 8th- or 16th-note shaker sound. It works well for me because there is an inherent sense of dynamics and feel that make it easier to hear and feel the time. Beyond that, even more elaborate percussion patterns with congas and bongos can be fun to play with for a bit of variety, and it will make you listen in a different way.
Use subdivisions or not?
Many people have differing (and opposing) opinions on whether or not to employ subdivisions on their metronome. Personally, I am in favor of using them because it helps me to hear and feel them to a greater degree, which in turn helps me to play the time more solidly. However, as mentioned above, it's vitally important to utilize musical-sounding subdivisions that have sonic and dynamic variance to them. At the very least, I recommend finding a metronome or app that allows you to bring the dynamics of the subdivisions down well below the main beats (i.e. quarter notes).
With the subdivisions, however, it's a good idea to vary what you do, be creative and mix it up from time to time. If you normally use subdivisions, try going without. Or if you don't, experiment with putting them in. If you normally go with 16th notes, try 8ths, etc. Try a different percussion pattern or use different sounds.
Turn it down
One thing I experience with some students is that they often tend to blast their metronome in their ears at an extremely loud volume relative to the instrument. I believe that this creates a mental attachment that can be a hindrance to ones development.
Turning the volume of the metronome down has a couple benefits. First, it brings everything into better balance, where you can hear the instrument balanced with the metronome. The higher the metronome is cranked, the less attention paid to the instrument. Second, turning the metronome down forces you to listen to it more closely. This way, you begin to free yourself of any mental dependency to the click and work in a way that is more complementary. The intention is to develop our own internal sense of solid time, rather than getting into the habit of deferring it to an outside source. As an exercise, try setting the metronome low enough so that it's difficult to hear, and even gets drowned out at times, and see how you fare. If you find that doing this makes you a little uncomfortable, good. That's the point.
Turn it off
Even in the most metronome-intensive practice, I find not using it at times to be just as valuable as using it. After a good while of solid metronome practice, try turning it off for a while (on the same or similar materials). Then turn it back on and see if your tempo drifted.
Developing a solid internal clock is neither quick nor easy. If you use creativity and variation, a metronome or equivalent can be an extremely effective tool.
Here are some products I've used and recommend:
Boss Dr. Beat DB-90 A really versatile and flexible stand-alone metronome, with separate volume controls for 8th, 16th and triplet subdivisions. Also has a few "rhythm coach" features that are really cool. At around $180, however, it's very pricey.
Frozen Ape Tempo This is pretty much the leading metronome app for iOS and Android devices. High quality and extremely flexible. Even better on an iPad. Has many sound sets, one of which is the "Pro" sound set that I prefer. Also Frozen Ape's Tempo Advance has even better sounds (IMHO), with volume controls for each subdivision.
Akai iMPC is also an excellent sequencing app for iOS. It comes with many stock sequences, and programming a cool percussion pattern is fairly easy. Sounds really good.
A DAW, such as Apple's Garage Band, Logic, Propellerheads' Reason, or many others, can offer near-endless choices in terms of sounds, samples and programmability, for those who are able to employ a laptop in their practice room. Garage Band is even available as an iOS app.