A student recently wrote to me seeking advice about counting out loud while practicing piano:
I've been doing the lessons for a while and I've spoken about it to some friends who are very proficient at piano and I've received the advice to make sure I learn to count aloud while playing. I've tried to do this and I've found that I cannot count and play at the same time. I've even tried in the practice room with just the metronome and still been unable to accomplish this important skill.
In reply, I explained; a key thing to realize is that you don't have to count aloud all the time while playing. Counting aloud is just a practice technique.
For most people, counting aloud is difficult and takes a long time to master. Ironically, as you become more advanced so do the pieces, and therefore counting aloud while playing more advanced pieces also becomes harder, so it is something even advanced pianists tend to struggle with.
As I explained to this student, if she were to ask her ‘advanced’ friends to play the most difficult piece they know at full tempo counting aloud, they will almost certainly struggle with this.
The curious thing about counting out loud while practicing piano is that everyone who writes about it (mostly piano teachers) proclaim the benefits of doing it without ever addressing the elephant in the room… No one really likes counting out loud while practicing and there invariably comes a point when doing so starts to become a hindrance rather than a help.
In theory, the advice to count out loud while practicing is good advice as it helps us become more aware of the beat of the music, helps us get the timing right, etc.
In practice, however, saying the numbers out loud while also reading the music and physically playing the piece on the piano / keyboard adds another layer of coordination challenge that can at times be problematic.
And if the time signature happens to be complex, e.g. 12 / 8, then the counting literally becomes something of a tongue twister – and that’s while you’re playing slowly. As you gradually increase the speed of your playing, it becomes downright impossible.
Often, well-meaning piano teachers who write on this topic offer the suggestion to record yourself counting 1234 1234 for several minutes, and then play back your recording while you practice.
Personally, I don’t recommend doing this because first, you might vary your tempo while recording your counting. And second, you will want to be able to change the tempo of your counting as you improve at paying the piece, so your recording will only ever be of use to you for a very short time, if at all.
Other authors on this topic refer to metronomes that count out loud for you. While this may be helpful for some students, for most Musiah students it is honestly not necessary because the Musiah app does something similar.
When playing with a click track in the Musiah app, the first beat of each bar is differentiated from the other beats in the bar. One could describe it as tick tock tock tock, tick tock tock tock. And this really achieves the same benefit as any digital metronome by defining the first beat of each bar which makes it very easy to follow the beats as you play.
But coming back to the main question of…
One technique you may find helpful as an alternative to counting with numbers is to count in 'pulses' e.g. "boom, boom, boom, boom" instead of "1, 2, 3, 4". The main part of counting is literally tracking / defining the beat in your mind while you play as opposed to literally saying the numbers which, as mentioned earlier, can become like a tongue twister.
It's also perfectly fine to count silently in your head and just count out loud some of the time.
If you specifically want to practice the skill of counting out loud while practicing, you could try doing some earlier / easier pieces while counting out loud as a supplementary activity to your current learning, but I wouldn't suggest spending a lot of time doing this as it would probably be just as beneficial to practice your current pieces slowly counting out loud (initially). Then as you increase the tempo, transition to counting silently in your head.
At the end of the day, the aim of this aspect of your practice is to increase your awareness of the underlying beat of the music and whether the notes you are playing are in time with that beat.
There are no hard and fast rules on how best to achieve this. Whichever ‘counting’ technique or combination of techniques work best for you is perfectly fine.
In closing, I’ll leave you with an anecdote from some years ago when I met a particular composer who had an unusual but effective counting technique for the difficult time signatures 5 / 8, 7 / 8 and 9 / 8.
For 5 / 8, instead of counting out loud "12345 12345", he would say “this is difficult, this is difficult”.
For 7 / 8, instead of counting out loud "1234567 1234567", he would say “this is very difficult, this is very difficult”.
And for 9 / 8, instead of counting out loud "123456789 123456789", he would say “this is very f***ing difficult, this is very f***ing difficult”.
Granted, this is a novel and somewhat tongue-in cheeck approach, but the point is, when practicing / playing piano, it really doesn’t matter which counting technique you use. If it works, it works!
I hope you found the above tips helpful.
And by the way, dear reader, if you have not yet tried piano lessons with Musiah, I warmly invite you to take our Musiah Piano Lessons 14 Day Free Trial.
With the highly innovative, effective piano tuition Musiah offers and tons of features and tools to help you make the most of each lesson, you’ll be amazed at just how quickly you can learn to play piano!
Thanks for reading.
Til next time,
Brendan Hogan L.Mus.A, A.Mus.A.
Piano Teacher & Musiah Inventor
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