Counting is one of the first things we are taught as kids. Its just so important to be able to count. And over time we internalise counting to such an extent that we don’t have to think about it anymore. If the cashier hands us a few coins, we look at them and the counting automatically happens.
Incidentally, counting is as important for playing music, as it is in life. Imagine wanting to become an accountant. To be able to do that, one needs to go to school, read books, solve problems, pass examinations and then crack an interview to finally get that coveted job of an accountant. And these are the activities that come to my mind when I think about becoming an accountant. But how can one be an accountant if he doesn’t know how to count. But that is so basic and obvious that we don’t even mention it. Similarly, to be able to play music well, we need to do a million things but one of the most basic things that we should be able to do is count.
When I started learning initially, I tried counting. But soon instead of counting the beats in my head, I started to think about the finger number that I had to press next. Take the following measure for example
When playing this, the count in my head should be 1–2–3–4. Instead, if I had my right hand thumb on middle C, what would go on in my head is 1–5–3 i.e. the finger numbers on notes C, G and E. This was because I had subconsciously trained my brain to activate the finger according to the number in my head. And once you do that, it becomes impossible to count the beats and play the correct notes at the same time.
I am starting to correct this now. To be able to correct it, I have decided not to play any piece without counting, no matter how simple or hard. I started again with the first exercise in my Grade I book and played while counting the beats.
Another problem that I had was that when I was counting beats in my head, I would count for a few measures but then after some time the counting would automatically stop without me noticing. To overcome that, I have started to count out loud. Initially it feels a bit difficult, but very soon it becomes natural and somewhat easy.
For me, the important thing to remember is that, when trying to play music, my brain needs to be able to do a lot many things simultaneously. It needs to read the notes of the staff, track the hand position, convert the note to finger number, count the beats, keep looking for accidentals, notice the dynamics, etc all at once. And it needs to do this for two hands. Our brains are not used to processing so much information simultaneously. We need to train them to be able to do that. That training starts with counting. So I am playing pieces while counting carefully. That requires me to slow down the tempo a lot otherwise I miss the count. And that is ok. In fact, that is the right way to practice.