Counting. Chances are that it’s either something you do nearly automatically or it’s something that you never do.
I can still hear my piano teacher insisting that I count out loud, and I can still feel my resistance. Counting, particularly aloud, didn’t come easily or naturally and I didn’t see the point.
I have now spent decades on the other end of scenario as the insistent teacher instead of the reluctant student. And during that time I have discovered what my music teachers knew: that counting is essential and inseparable from making music. It is a tool that helps us not only learn music more accurately and quickly but also helps us play music with more expression and fluency.
Need more convincing? Read on…
This may surprise you, but it’s true: the metronome doesn’t substitute for counting. Counting is how you line up the notes with the correct beats. The metronome merely keeps those beats equal in duration.
So when you count, you are connecting the rhythm you are playing with the beats in the metric pattern indicated by the time signature. You will be able to keep your place in the measure, as well as more quickly and accurately understand any subdivisions or combinations of beats. Translation: you will make fewer rhythmic errors.
Of course, counting is an essential tool for every musician playing in an ensemble. Counting is an ensemble member’s responsibility to the group. It reduces errors, saving rehearsal time and preventing confusion. Of course, orchestral harpists are consummate counters, with dozens or sometimes hundreds of measures of rest to count!
Not all beats are created equal.
While each beat is equal in length, different beats within a measure bear different levels of emphasis. The first beat, or downbeat of each measure, has the strongest pulse. The other beats may be more or less equally weighted, or some may receive slightly more emphasis than others, depending on the meter. These different levels of emphasis are how we hear the meter as a pattern, instead of one long monotone.
When you are counting, you automatically remind yourself that these beats are distinct and different. You remind yourself of the beat pattern in each measure and your playing will reflect that, sounding more rhythmic and interesting. And the more you practice your counting, the more you will discover the continuity and flow that might be eluding you at the moment.
Counting aloud has the added benefit of developing your inner metronome. By vocalizing the beats you are training yourself to heightened awareness of the meter and to keeping a steadier pulse.
If there were one thing I could say that might convince you to practice counting, I think this is it. Counting improves your sightreading.
Consider the points in the paragraphs above and it should be clear to you. If your inner metronome is strong, if you can recognize rhythmic patterns and fit them into the beat pattern correctly, if you have developed continuity in your playing, your sightreading should be fluent and correct.
So much of playing music is about putting the right notes in the right place at the right time. And counting will train you to do exactly that, reliably and confidently.
Counting Aloud versus Silently
To count silently or to count aloud; that is the question.
Counting is the important thing, whether silently or aloud. However, counting aloud is a much more powerful practice tool.
Vocalized counting is an audible and physical reminder of the essential meter underlying the music. It reduces the likelihood of “cheating” to accommodate a difficult passage. It strengthens the counting skill itself by forcing you to work a little harder to maintain it. And it gives you a way to check yourself as you learn a new piece; if the numbers you’re saying don’t line up with the beats you’re playing, you know something got off track.
We harpists don’t have the excuse that wind players do. We CAN count aloud. And I hope I have convinced you that you should.