The Musician’s Most Important Skill

Whether you know it or not, your kindergarten teacher or your mother taught you the most important musical skill there is.  You definitely must have natural giftings in order to be a good musician, but without this rudimentary and critical skill you will be up a creek without a paddle.

While we were growing up almost everything was cool.

“Guess what, daddy!  I can say my ABCs!”
“Listen to me count to 100!”
“I can run a mile in 12 minutes!!”

And every parent’s favorite:

“Look, daddy!  I went potty!”

Once we grow up we take these kinds of things for granted.  And we should, especially if we are talking about bathroom habits!

Sometimes, however, we become too cool or grown up to do important things.

Like counting.

Somewhere along the way to adulthood we get the idea that acknowledging our need to count in music is like saying we are musical infants.  Suddenly we feel like the kid trying to play bass drum in Mr. Holland’s Opus, waiting for the teacher to announce, “Congratulations!  You have found the beat!”

Even worse is being asked to count out loud.  Then we feel like kindergarteners again.

The best musicians are excellent counters.  Robert Shaw was famous for making his choirs count sing (instead of singing the words you sing the beat – 1 & 2 e & a, etc.).  Take a moment to listen one of the spirituals on Shaw’s CD entitled Amazing Grace; you can set your watch by the crisp time.

Here are a few benefits of reverting to deliberate, audible counting when you are learning or review music:

  1. The puzzle makes sense.  When you meticulously count everything out, you suddenly discover how the intricate parts of the music fit together because the parts line up properly.
  2. An “ensemble sound” emerges.  When everyone in the ensemble or section or band is precisely together the sound goes from a collection of individual sounds to one full and cohesive sound.
  3. Your singing is punctual.  Let’s state the obvious: when you count you start and stop at the right times.  Simple enough?
  4. You find your weak spots.  Counting reveals your musical blind spots, spots that had gone unnoticed up to that time because you were not being precise.
  5. You are acting like a professional.  Contrary to what you may think, counting well is one of the marks of a professional.  Orchestral timpanists and brass players often have to count hundreds of measures between passages.  They get paid to count correctly.

The next time you are learning or reviewing a piece, intentionally and audibly count through it and see what happens to the quality of your musicianship.

Post the results of your experiment in the comments section below.

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