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Are you counting?
The foundation of all music, notes in time.
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Are you counting?
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Posted by Dylan Christopher, 5 months ago
Tags: guide, metre, musicianship

Are you counting?

A fundamental concept that is overlooked by beginner musicians, is the ability to establish a pulse, and keep it in time.  In the early stages of learning, music consists of fairly basic rhythms that are easily identified and understood, to the point where constant and consistent counting is not immediately necessary.  After a short while, the focus for the learner nearly always becomes learning notes, with the intention of adding the details later.

This creates many problems; for one, the music, from the perspective of any listener, will become disjointed and lacking in consistency. In lessons, I describe this problem regarding pulse akin to a heart beating. 

“In order for you to remain alive, your heart needs to beat strong and constant.  When you are excited or relaxed, the frequency increases or decreases, respectively.  If at any moment, your heart skipped a beat, you would feel it.  If it did this with any regularity, it would be prudent to consult medical attention because your health is likely in danger. 

Your music is no different; to give it life, your counting needs to be strong and constant.  If you skip a beat, your audience will feel it; and, if you did this with any regularity, your music will be in danger of falling apart.” 

There is a detachment between counting and music for most learning musicians.  Many hear the final product, in a performance, from a veteran performer, and presume that it is supposed to sound like that in the first instance, overlooking the fundamental components needed to deliver a similar result, namely counting. 

Over the years, this issue is frequently encountered in beginners.  In some instances --- more concerning --- it can also be encountered in some intermediate and advanced students.  However, the issue is not something new to that individual, developing over time from their first encounters with music.  If left unchecked and not remedied, it will directly inhibit any potential to advance past the point of simple regurgitation.  It is usually not isolated to any particular piece of music or rhythmic device within a piece of music.  Furthermore, it is the biggest affliction of self-proclaimed poor sight-readers.  How can you bring music ‘to life’, with no pulse? 

When taking music lessons, for quite a long period into the process, the age-old adage, “Don’t run before you can walk” is directly relevant; particularly at the beginning when the focus is building a strong foundation.  Many learners lack enough knowledge on the subject area to successfully determine what information is important, and what information is irrelevant.  Generally speaking, nothing your teacher tells you with regard to learning should be considered irrelevant, however, at this stage of development, everything is even more so, relevant. 

The problem is that many an impatient student will simply disregard any and all information regarding ‘the basics’ in the pursuit of 'impressing people' with a performance.  The learner, in a desperate attempt to create something ‘impressive’, will choose to plough through a study, ignoring the very point of the exercise; in the beginning, the point is establishing a reflex for counting time.  A simple mechanical exercise, focused on timing and pulse, intended to teach the basic principles of music, in the eyes and ears of the learner, is sufficiently unimpressive enough to make them increase the tempo in an attempt to make it interesting. 

An inexperienced teacher might even congratulate this student’s efforts; the task was completed, even if not entirely correct.  This would be a mistake, and in the long-term, it would be detrimental to the progress of the student.  If the point of the study was to learn how to measure time by counting, while placing notes in said time, and this was not completed, the most basic component in this student’s development has not been completed.  Furthermore, if it is left unchecked, over time, this will develop into a devastating bad habit, the before mentioned 'affliction' with sight-reading.

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Dylan completed his music training with honours at Colchester Institute, where he studied piano with Australian pianist Lesley Young, and composition with British composer Dr Mark Bellis. While studying, in 2009, Dylan won Colchester Institute’s Canon Jack Award for Solo Piano adjudicated by Andrew Ball.  A composer, promoter, and advocate of contemporary classical music, Dylan joined the membership of Colchester New Music in 2014.

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