Friday, April 27, 2012

Down with the count

I started playing music when I was so young (4 or 5) that I don't remember learning to read it or how I understood rhythms, meters, or counting; I just kind of did it. My formal lessons on piano didn't start until I was almost 10, and my teacher must have assumed knowledge on my part that I didn't necessarily have because I appeared to know so much already.

A few years later, when I started playing the cello and playing in groups, counting assumed more importance because I had to stay with the group and follow the conductor. Again, I don't remember this being much of an issue. I obviously have some native-born talent at this music stuff and an instinctive sense of how to do things, so the years went by, and I didn't do too badly overall. I eventually learned to play the cello well, earned three college degrees, and played innumerable concerts.

BUT ... until I started taking lessons with my current piano teacher a few months ago, no one had asked me to count while I played. A little cursory research has revealed that it's not at all common for this to be mentioned or taught, so it's not surprising that I had never encountered this as a discipline. Oh, I had done it on occasion, when working on something tricky or when teaching a student or playing chamber music, but not as a regular thing. I have always relied on the metronome to learn pulse and speed, and it is a useful tool, but it doesn't solve everything. Well, I've had more than a dozen lessons with this teacher so far, and I believe at each one he has asked me at least once, "Are you counting?" (after yet another display of my stumbling and rushing), and I have had to say, "Not really." I kept thinking, "I can do this any time, I just forget."

I finally decided I'd better get with the program, and I rolled up my sleeves and went at it. First on the cello, with Pezzo Capriccioso, because as I've whined about continuously here, I don't seem to have a handle on the pulse at all. Those reading this who play an instrument and want to try this at home: It is not at all easy! What I ended up doing was working on small sections (a few measures at a time) until I could play them at various speeds while counting (or at least grunting) out loud. I spent an hour and half on this at my first pass, and when I was done, it was the first time I felt really hopeful about being able to play this piece in public.

Counting the beats, whether out loud or mentally, works at a fear I've always had that I didn't really know what was happening on which beat, or vice versa. Also, counting out loud is a physical act that engages a different part of one's brain than playing and makes connections with intellectual understanding of what one is doing physically. And then, there's the sense I always have that any crazy new thing you do to add another dimension to practicing is at least useful, though this is more basic than that.

Speaking of another dimension, moving this to the piano adds more layers of complexity. Because it is possible to play the piano without using large muscles (which is not the case with the cello), it is harder to feel the beat, so counting takes much more effort and concentration. Plus, obviously, you have two hands playing different stuff from each other, and usually more than one line within each hand or crossing from hand to hand. Again, I am finding I have to break pieces down into small sections and practice counting through each one while playing. Another method my teacher likes to apply is playing one hand while conducting with the other, and I've been doing some of that this week also.

I spent some hours on this with the Bach D minor Prelude and Fugue from WTC II. And when I played it at my lesson today, darned if it wasn't much better! It's the first time it hasn't felt hopelessly out of control.

So, some exciting new ventures.


pdxknitterati/MicheleLB said...

Thanks for the reminder. I forget to count. And then I sing the counting, but I can still screw it up!

Harriet said...

I was surprised how difficult it is to count even mentally while playing throughout an entire piece. I don't think I have been quite able to do it yet. And at my lesson today, my teacher asked me to count out loud on a piece and then criticized my counting technique (said it should be more musical). Sigh.

But this has opened an interesting world for me as I reconsider pieces I've played all my life, like the prelude of the first Bach cello suite. Do I really know which beat is which?