I have noticed a trend among piano teachers in teaching rhythms by rote as opposed to what I call “mathing it out.”

I will admit that having a student copy your example is much faster in conveying rhythmic concepts (especially dotted rhythms), but this is really not a good long term solution. 

Students who copy things are much slower to develop independence versus students who learn to rely on their own abilities when working out rhythms.

Vocalized Counting

The idea of vocalized counting (or counting out loud) is one of the most useful musical skills I have discovered in my entire history of teaching.

Vocalized counting while playing helps a musician develop a sense of pulse, choreograph movements, memorize material, aid in sight reading, shape musical phrases, reduce the frequency of rhythmic mistakes, and learn passages more quickly.

Counting out loud makes otherwise ambiguous elements of music very clear and simple to understand.

External Counting vs Internal Counting

When I encourage my students to count out their music while they play, they often reply that they are counting in their head. To show them that this is no substitute, I will often count internally while they do the same and discover very quickly that they really aren’t counting at all.

Even if they try to count internally while they play, the pulse goes out the window the moment a student encounters any technical difficulty with the piece.

External counting prioritizes the pulse (represented by spoken words) over anything else. If a student doesn’t understand the rhythm or plays with no sense of beat, it becomes immediately evident (and affords an opportunity to slow down or work things out).

External counting is the musical equivalent of a math student showing his or her work on an equation. It reveals how much a student understands the timing and rhythm of a piece of music.

What is Counting Out Loud?

If you are unfamiliar with the concept of counting out loud (or if you simply need a refresher), here’s a quick summary.

You essentially count out the number of the pulse or beat along with any subdivided elements of a measure while playing the indicated rhythm of a passage.

Your voice represents the pulse or beat and should be as consistent as possible. While you count audibly in this way, you will carefully time your playing against your established pulse.

Since many folks struggle with this type of coordination, they can alternatively count while playing one hand, or try clapping, tapping, or even pressing a single note to achieve a similar end.

Here are a few examples of how I count using various pulse subdivisions:

  • Quarter notes = say numbers only.
    • Example: “1, 2, 3, 4”
  • Eighth notes = say the word “and” exactly halfway between each beat.
    • Example: “1 & 2 &”
  • Triplets = say the number of each beat followed by “o-let.”
    • Example: “1-o-let, 2-o-let”
  • Sixteenth notes = say the number of each beat followed by “e-and-a.”
    • Example: “1-e-&-a-2-e-&-a”

For best results, use consistent words or syllables across the different systems whenever you are trying to express the same part of a beat. For example, the “and” from my 16th note counting lines up with the “and” from my 8th note counting because it represents the halfway point between each beat.

Note that I do not say “1-&-a-2-&-a” for triplets because “and” used in this way is not consistent with 8th/16th note counting. For this reason, I use different syllables entirely (o-let).

It makes sense to mix these counting styles depending on what a passage calls for. However, there is also value in subdividing consistently in more straight forward passages.

A good rule of thumb is to subdivide using the smallest note value on the page. For example, if you have a passage using half notes, quarter notes, and eighth notes, count using the eighth note.

Improving Reading Fluency

One of the most immediately realized advantages of counting out loud is improved music reading skills. Our written music system consists of a stylized visualization of pitch versus time which is very effective at conveying musical information, but much of the nuance is lost without an intuitive sense of how things visually line up.

Many of the visual cues for the “time” component in music reading are not often realized by newer students who lack fluent reading skills.

Counting out music helps you to sort all of the elements of a measure into particular beats.

I like to think of the beats themselves as “containers” for the music to go in. When you count out a measure, you are essentially laying out these mental containers which help you visually divide measures up and focus on things sequentially.

If you consistently apply vocalized counting to your reading practice, you will dramatically improve your ability to synchronize your movements in both hands and become a more fluent reader.

Improving Musicality, Phrasing, and Memory

Another application of counting out loud (which outlasts the learning phase) is to reinforce the connection of the mind to the music.

For example, you can count in a very articulated way to bring clarity and evenness to fast passages. This offers you much more control over what you are doing and helps eliminates “spurts” of notes.

You can also apply counting to help establish your intended musical inflection for larger musical ideas. You will likely find that your playing follows the energy in your voice.

For many people, the voice is often a more immediate expression of thought compared to playing (this is one reason why singing works to develop musicality across the board).

In addition to phrasing, counting using a numbered pulse calls attention to the beat hierarchy which allows you to push towards the downbeat or realize the relative strength of each beat’s influence on the music.

Lastly, counting helps you memorize passages more quickly by offering a consistent mental roadmap to latch on to once you decide to put away the written music. You are essentially plotting out mental flags for exactly when and where musical ideas occur.

How to Establish Counting Techniques in Your Studio

I consider vocalized counting as my “silver bullet” teaching technique. I first discovered this technique from another teacher whose pedagogical approach on this subject has helped me tremendously in my teaching and even my own playing.

I have relied upon this concept of understanding and thinking about rhythm ever since and my students have all warmed up to it over time. Now that I have transitioned into teaching piano online, I especially appreciate students developing this skill. Students of mine who count well also happen to be solid readers and generally learn music very quickly.

This is not some secret method that few teachers know about (although some of the benefits are not widely known). Many teachers just don’t have the patience to overcome resistance from students.

My advice for any of you teachers out there is to apply this method to your own playing first.

Use it when practicing sight reading. Use it in your technical work. Use it when learning new pieces. Once you learn to rely on it, you will be much more convincing and consistent when applying it in your lessons, and students will begin to rely on it as well.