Counting!

If someone were to tap my teaching studio with a bug or a wire (I’ve clearly been watching too much detective stuff on the TV….), the listener may well think I were obsessed with one particular word. And they’d probably be right.

What is that word?

Counting.

I did write a piece on this back in September of last year, but I think it’s about time for a revisit on this subject.

So why is counting so important when playing the guitar? Well, I would hope that the answer to this question is reasonably evident, but not being one to make any assumptions and to have no expectations let’s explore.

Begin at the beginning

Before we start a piece how do we know what tempo (i.e. how fast or slow) we’re going to play at? We might hear the opening few bars in our head, which implies an innate, unconscious style of counting. However, to get to this stage we perhaps have been playing a piece for some time.

What happens when we’re new to a piece, or somewhat unfamiliar? How do we know how fast or slow we’re going to crack into the music? The simple answer is we count ourselves in, counting in at the tempo we wish to start the piece.

Example of "count chant" method
Example of “count chant” method (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This sets us up for starting the piece in exactly the right way, the most comfortable way – the fingers, the hands, the brain (both your conscious and unconscious bits) all know exactly what they’re doing tempo-wise. A much more relaxing state to start playing in than just starting clean off the bat, no counting in, flying by the seat of your pants, wahey, kinda guessing. And if you’re playing for an audience, by you counting yourself in (most probably in your head. Wonderful thing the inner monologue!), chances are that they’re going to feel a whole lot more comfortable, relaxed, reassured and entertained by your playing.

And don’t stop there!

Whatever level you are on the instrument at present, everyone can benefit from actively counting throughout a piece in the early stages of learning a piece. This might even take the form of counting out loud. And especially so during tricky rhythmic sections.

And when I say everyone, I mean everyone. Everyone.

And yes, I still do it. Like a woman possessed. I even pencil it in to my scores when learning. I regularly show my students, for example, scores from the guitar orchestra I play in – pencil everywhere, particularly in some interesting syncopated percussion-type parts.

I hear a lot of “ah well, I was just kind of, you know, intuitively feeling it….” Hmmm. That’s good, but the pulse might have felt a little off centre and perhaps those dotted quavers weren’t quite sitting on the beat, were they? I encourage “feeling”, but before we get to the “feeling” part we’ve got to do the “knowing” and “understanding” bits first.

There seems to be some kind of seeming shamefulness in the need to count! Where does this come from?! Let’s change this! To count is noble! It demonstrates care and consideration for the piece of music you’re about to or are playing. It demonstrates that even if you think you’re a bit flipping good on the instrument that you’re not above getting right back to basics and making sure that you really are playing the rhythm that the composer intended.

You’ve got to know the rules – and feel yourself butting up against them – before you can bend them. Same with time and rhythm. By playing strictly with the pulse and precisely in rhythm (which most of the time is not appropriate or musical or lovely or human in any way!), that’s when we know what the true sense of the pulse is. That’s when we know exactly what rhythm we should be playing. Only then, once you really understand that, can you then begin to intuit the pulse and the rhythm of a piece and get to work with some tasteful rubato.

So get out there, invest in a metronome and get counting!

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Here’s something you can count on…

I am very sure that most of us like to think we have an awesome in-built sense of rhythm and timing. I know I do, and then I disappoint myself when I stuff up a seemingly easy rhythm – hah hah!

The Count from Sesame Street
He can Count.. (Photo credit: Elliot Trinidad)

It is fair to say, however, that we do have to a degree an in-built sense of pulse and rhythm. Let’s just say though that this sense of rhythm and timing is not as precision as we would like it.

Not with me, not with you, not even with the seasoned pro up on the stage! I can assure you.

This is where our good friend counting comes in, especially when learning a new piece, embedding that sense of pulse and the rhythms associated with the piece into the old grey matter and fingers.

Yes, counting. I’m pretty sure that most of us can do that. Even me with my number dyslexia!

It helps us get our head around complex or not-so-straightforward rhythms, where we might have overlapping contrapuntal lines or some syncopation going on.

Even with basic rhythms – are you giving those crotchets and minims their full count?! And the rests?!

Don’t be afraid to whack out your HB pencil and write in big, bold confident strokes the counting for a bar or phrase that needs particular attention rhythmically. Count out loud or mouth the counting whilst you’re playing during practice to (a) make sure that you’re playing it correctly and (b) that you’re confirming, verifying and embedding that rhythm into your body.

I can regale you with an example of a well-known and respected guitarist and teacher, who I saw very recently on stage counting along to the music he was playing like a maniac!

There you go – even the best of the best do it, so don’t be afraid! It doesn’t mean you’re rubbish, it just means you want to play the music in the best way it can be played!