Advice—How Can I Get Better at Counting?

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Q: How can I get better at counting? My sense of rhythm is terrible!

“When you practice your harp, use the metronome every day. Keep checking your timing with it regularly,” says Elizabeth Volpé.

Buy a good rhythm book, such as The Logical Approach to Rhythmic Notation by Phil Perkins. Practice your rhythms separately from playing the notes! Work with a metronome to keep an exact pulse. It should be slow enough that you don’t feel rushed. At first, set your metronome to the eighth notes or the triplets, in order to keep them evenly spaced in the beats. Speed it up as you get more confident.

Start with the first exercises, clapping or saying each rhythm. I use the words “one-and-two-and” for eighth notes, and “one-ee-and-a” for sixteenth notes. For tuplets of three say “one and a;” for quintuplets, try “university.” You could say “blueberry ice cream cone” for a triplet, duplet, quarter note combination (but you must say them absolutely rhythmically—use the metronome!)

When you practice your harp, use the metronome every day. Keep checking your timing with it regularly.
If a piece has to be strictly rhythmic, sometimes it is necessary to edit a bit if the writing makes it impossible to keep the rhythm steady. This is particularly true in ensembles. When conductors take unreasonable tempi, often the harp part becomes unplayable at that speed and you must keep up with the orchestra no matter what is on the page. When playing in ensembles, keep counting through each bar, especially when counting rests. Solo pieces and cadenzas allow you more freedom to take an artistic breath, if there is a huge jump that does not let you get to the next note on time.

You can test your new skills with web sites such as www.therhythmtrainer.com. Everything gets better with focused practice. Don’t give up—rhythm and pulse are very important!

—Elizabeth Volpé, Principal Harpist of the Vancouver Symphony and faculty member at the University of British Columbia School of Music, Vancouver, B.C.

"Practice every day with the metronome and make sure it’s on a reasonably slow setting," advises Maeve Gilchrist.

“Practice every day with the metronome and make sure it’s on a reasonably slow setting,” advises Maeve Gilchrist.

There are so many ways to strengthen your sense of rhythm and the first step is setting aside part of your practice time for this purpose. Practicing rhythm, and strengthening the rhythmic core is one of my very favorite things, as it affects everything that I play—my articulation, musicality, projection, and general musical confidence.

I would advise you to practice every day with the metronome and make sure it’s on a reasonably slow setting. You can practice your regular warm-up routine with the metronome—scales, arpeggios, etudes. Try having the “click” on the half beat and then the quarter beat. Make sure that in your head you are counting all the subdivisions that you aren’t playing. For example, if you are playing half notes, make sure you can count quarter notes and eighth notes as you play. This sounds much easier than it is! It will help you not rush and really understand your tempo. Stick with every new rhythmic exercise you do until it feels strong and consistent.

I would also advise trying some ostinato-based exercises. An ostinato is a recurring pattern or motif, and you can choose any little melodic or rhythmic fragment and set it up in one hand while using the metronome. After this feels solid, bring in a different pattern in the other hand. Perhaps it will be as simple as two whole notes, but whatever it is, stick with it until your hands lock together, forming one sound with the two separate parts. This process can get quite creative and fun, and I guarantee the results in both your sense of rhythm and your hand independence!

—Maeve Gilchrist, recording artist and instructor at Berklee College of Music
Brooklyn, N.Y.

"To get that rhythm in your head, it’s going to take a lot of counting out loud," says Frank Voltz.

“To get that rhythm in your head, it’s going to take a lot of counting out loud,” says Frank Voltz.

You have to understand rhythm before you can play it. Away from the harp, take a simple piece of music and tap the rhythm in the treble clef with your right hand. Once you have mastered the treble clef, tap the rhythm in the bass clef with your left hand. Once you have mastered the bass, put your hands together and tap the rhythm in the treble with your right hand while you tap the rhythm in the bass with your left hand. Don’t be surprised if it takes you an entire practice session to figure out the rhythm of the music and translate it through tapping your hands. A metronome is vital!

When I’m learning a piece of music, I say things out loud like “C-sharp lever” when I’m on the measure where I engage the C-sharp lever. For weeks I say it every time I play it. After endless repetition, I stop talking while I play and miraculously, a voice in my head says “C-sharp lever” at the same spot in the music. Now I’ll never miss that C-sharp lever. This example can be transferred to rhythm. Most people don’t enjoy counting out loud or singing as they play, but by doing so, they are creating a “rhythm by rote” method that will keep the rhythm solid. A common mistake is counting a couple of times and then giving up or thinking that you’ve got it. To get that rhythm in your head, it’s going to take a lot of counting out loud.

Whether it is a song with lyrics or a classical instrumental piece, you can sing the melody, using a syllable such as “la.” When you sing, you instinctively sing rhythmically, especially if it is a popular or familiar song, because you know it. Now play the right hand as you sing the melody. Once you have mastered singing the melody and playing the right hand, add the left hand. You’ll be surprised how quickly your hands come together.

You can only play the piece as fast as the slowest part. Of course, the slowest part is the hardest part. Work on the hard part so that when you get there, you keep the beat. The more you work at learning to play rhythmically, the easier it will be. •

—Frank Voltz, composer, arranger, and performer on lever and pedal harp
Clemmons, N.C.

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