How important it is to feel a beat and keep it steady. I constantly tell my students they need to keep a steady tempo. As we work on it, it is clearly challenging for them. Then they ask whether a metronome would help. The only time I like to use a metronome in my own practicing is to verify whether my beat is steady or as a way to gradually increase the tempo.
Feel the beat is what I tell my students. I let them tap their toes, but what I really encourage them to do is try to feel the beat internally. The beat isn’t so much something thought as much as it is something felt. I remind them that they already have a beat in their body – their heartbeat.
Consistency is the way to get there. Even scales and warmup exercises should be played with both a definite rhythm and tempo in mind. I hold students accountable for keeping a steady beat. I love to give my students lots of choices but not when it comes to maintaining a steady tempo. Not only is music meant to be played with a real tempo but it also makes it possible to play together with other musicians.