by Bruce Berr, Editor
uch has been written about the need for piano students to learn to count out loud while playing. This essential skill is best and easiest learned if it is learned right from the beginning, in the first few lessons, and then used intermittently after that as needed. It proves helpful during the decoding (initial deciphering of the printed page) of most elementary-level pieces, and continues to be advantageous when occasional counting-rhythm mishaps need to be corrected. There are a host of other benefits for students who, on demand from either the teacher-or better yet-from the students themselves, can play and count with precision, security, and ease.
But, as one of our authors argues, at some point counting out loud becomes too much of a good thing. Isn't counting out loud simply a tool? To make effective use of any tool, pedagogical or otherwise, one must not only know how to use it, but just as importantly, when to use it. In the latter construction phases of, say, a wooden bookcase, even careful and well-intentioned use of sandpaper that is coarse is not going to produce desirable results when clearly a more fine paper is needed.
So it is with the "coarse" tool of counting out loud while playing. While it is indispensable in early learning stages, if used too much or for too long in each piece, it can actually interfere with students' learning how to play with musicality and artistry, because counting out loud is essentially a vertical gesture. Consider a hypothetical recital performance of a smooth and flowing legato cantabile piece: a student's counting-rhythm is "accurate," yet the playing is unmusical-perhaps it sounds stilted, over-rhythmic, or even smacks of being in a time signature that unfortunately could best be described as !
Here are some examples. Click below to hear a polished performance (NOT in , and without repeats) of Leopold Mozart's early intermediate piece, the Minuet from the Notebook for Wolfgang:
533k, 8-bit WAV sound file
Here is the same piece, performed in a way that a student might play it if there was too much of an emphasis on counting out loud:
520k, 8-bit WAV sound file
Doesn't that sound like it is in ? In performances such as this, it is possible that the vertical feeling of counting out loud when first learning the piece (and the consequent over-emphasis on the individual beats) infected the later learning stages of the piece. At that point, it would be more fruitful to focus on the horizontal aspects of the music. Of course, counting out loud (or even vigorous internal counting) for too long may not be the only culprit in such a performance, but it is a good candidate. This is especially true for students whose decoding of the written page was faulty to begin with, and thus required substantial attention at lessons and home practice.
Notice that there are several individual aspects of this playing that could be corrected: the staccatos are too long and heavy, there is no shaping, the piece doesn't really end, etc. But it has been my experience that this kind of playing, in which the notes and counting rhythm are solid but the musical message is barely present, can be more quickly and easily remedied by refocussing the student's body motions and listening away from the individual beats, and more to the overall feel of the three-four meter (the dance feeling). In many cases, doing so seems to "correct" many of the smaller problematic details mentioned above.
I have asked Mary Bloom and Sandra Stewart to share their ideas of other circumstances and ideas related to this important issue of when a student should stop counting out loud, a challenge that faces us and our early-level students every day that we teach and every day that they practice.
Mary's and Sandra's articles appear in the print magazine.