When should I count?

Edited: April 29, 2018, 2:49 PM · I've been playing the violin for some months now and I have problems with tempo sometimes.

Most of the times, I play without counting and it doesn't sound bad, in my opinion. This happens because I previously listen to what I'm gonna play and get the rhythm or, if there isn't a recording available, I kinda get the rhythm by myself while playing, after strugling a little bit.

However, it happens to me sometimes to play long notes shorter or to face pieces with dotted eighth followed by sixteenth and I get a bit lost with the tempo. I used to have the same problem even with dotted quarter notes followed by an eighth, but it is getting better now.

I asked my teacher if I should use Pozzolli to train my tempo, but he says I don't need that 'cause my tempo is not bad. He also doesn't tell me to count, but draw my attetion when I make mistakes, and then show me how it is supposed to be. My sister, however, is an organist, and she says I should always count no matter what.

Some current facts:
- when I try to count while playing, the quality of my sound gets worse since I'm dedicating attetion to both; I can't do it automatically yet, although I think that would be just a matter of time;
- I have just started to practice counting without playing before playing. Is it good enough to be able to play and count at the same time soon?

Lastly, I want to know your opinion about counting while playing and how you are used to do.

Replies (13)

Edited: April 29, 2018, 5:06 PM · If you think you will ever want to play with other people you will have learn to count - or at least keep a meticulously steady tempo some other way.

To my mind, there are two aspects of counting (1) knowing note "values in time" and how to play them, and (2) what I said above - counting (i.e., keeping a steady tempo).

No matter how much in tune you play, if you don't do the above, you will have trouble getting "play dates." And without play dates, making music can become very lonely.

As far as sound quality getting worse when you count - I suspect that is not unusual. Sound comes largely from the right hand and almost anything else that is difficult to do can tangle that up, tougher fingering, shifting positions, tricky rhythms, etc. It's why we practice to overcome these things. I would say that you should not expect to conquer any single problem that has become a habit in less than a month - and consider yourself lucky if you can do it that fast. The really tough problems may take years.


Isn't Pozzolli a piano method? Any violin method has all the counting challenges you need.

April 29, 2018, 6:04 PM · You don't need to "count" in the sense of calling numbers in your head, necessarily, but you do need to get your rhythms precisely accurate. It is arguably in fact more important for the rhythm to be accurate than for the note to be otherwise right.

To identify rhythmic instability, the best approach is usually to play with a metronome.

Edited: April 30, 2018, 9:21 AM · Thank you for replying.

Andrew Victor,
so should I count even if my sound quality gets worse - until being able to count without losing quality?
What about training without playing? Do you think it is useful?
Do you count even when you know the piece by heart, having played many times?
Pozzolli might be a piano method too, but there's one which is focused on developing rhythm; I have it as a PDF.

Lydia Leong,
I don't see how to count without calling numbers in my head. I could establish a rhythm tapping my foot on the ground, but it has never seemed very effective for me. If I "have to suffer" to count, may it be learning the best way at once.
I used to play with the metronome, but it does not seem the best option because it keeps running no matter you can play along or not, and it isn't that easy normally, while you're still learning. Also, I'd like to develop independence... I can't always depend on the metronome to play with the right rhythm.

By the way, I'm new here: is there a way to get a notification if a selected thread gets new messages?

Edited: April 30, 2018, 9:52 AM · Henrique Perroni,
By counting, I mean keeping a steady beat. Since virtually all my playing is done reading "sheet music" that is what I do when I play it. Sometimes I do count "numbers" ("call numbers in my head" as you put it) - especially when the notes appear "awkwardly" within and around the bars of the measures. However, when I am "fiddling," just fooling around or improvising after tuning up, I do not count and just let the notes both in pitch and in duration lead me on to where they want to go.

I'm sure different people "count" in different ways, it's just important to have some way to know what you are doing relative to "steady time." Foot tapping is very common and popular by those who do it - not so much by those who don't but have to withstand the view of different feet touching the ground at different times relative to "the beat." If you can tap your toes inside your shoe - that is best.

The few times I played from memory (or mostly from memory) I did not count as such (I guess) but I did keep a beat. Keeping the beat is absolutely critical, even when you violate it you should know what you are doing.

There are situations when it is just fine to vary the rhythm and then there are the times that when you might want to be expressive with counting within the rhythm - also fine - but actually quite difficult.

There was a funny story about 20th century violin virtuoso, Mischa Elman having a disagreement with his piano accompanist. His accompanist complained that Elman was not keeping the beat and Mischa insisted that he was, HIS beat! When you don't keep steady rhythm in ensemble playing all parties involved have to agree to the irregularities by prior agreement and careful watching each other or the leader (as the case may be). Irregular rhythm when sight-reading together in ensemble is a real pain in the butt except at the highest levels of musicianship when everyone knows "the score." (Of course, at that level of playing there is hardly any music those people have not played before so it's not exactly "sight reading.")

Edited: April 30, 2018, 10:59 AM · Do a google search for "Peterson Body Beat Pulse Solo." It's a device that plugs into the headphone socket on your metronome (or phone with a metronome app) and vibrates with the beat. You clip it to your pants pocket or whatever and get an essentially silent tactile report for the rhythm. With Peterson's own free app the unit will actually give different pulses for the first beat of the measure, etc. A lot of people, including me, are learning to like these devices a lot.

Note: I don't mean to imply that you become dependent on the device. It's a training tool and works well for developing your own sense of rhythm.

April 30, 2018, 9:48 PM · First and foremost: I think this is a question of whether you're going to let an organist tell you how to learn violin, or let a violinist tell you how to learn the violin.

Counting may just not be that relevant right now, in the sense that your teacher may see you have much bigger fish to fry. For example, if you can't even produce a decent tone half the time with the bow, there's no point in throwing the whole concept of counting in. It would be massively counterproductive until you have some semblance of control over your bow. Or, many other things might take precedence over counting. Your sister may not be taking that into consideration.

Also, keep in mind that different people mean different things when they say "counting." Some mean ACTUALLY counting verbally, some mean mentally keeping track of the beat and which beat you're on, and some simply mean to stay in tempo and play the correct rhythm.

May 1, 2018, 8:55 AM · Practice everything with a metronome - everything. Almost everything you will play (Bach Partitas excepted) will have another instrument(s) playing with you. You need to develop the skill of automatically timing your music with the other musicians around you. The metronome is your inexpensive friend to develop this skill.
May 1, 2018, 2:06 PM · Whether you consciously count or not, you have to keep the beat. Think of it as the heartbeat of the piece. You can play all sorts of notes, but everyone has to hit that beat when it comes by. Try practising rhythms without an instrument; tap your hands on a desktop, for instance, and try to hit the beat while working various rhythms into it. As others have said, a metronome will help you keep the beat until you get the hang of it.

If you're going to play with other people, you all must have good timing, and be able to listen to each other to keep it that way. Remember, the right note at the wrong time is still a wrong note.

May 6, 2018, 12:33 PM · Thank you all for replying, again.

Andrew Victor, thanks for the thoughts on when you count and the funny story. By what you say I realize I must get good at counting in order to play in ensemble easily, until I get good enough not to worry that much about not playing the correctly rhythm, until everything gets more intrinsic / automatic. Also, it is important training if I don't want to lose sound quality.

Mark Bouquet, I'm gonna check it out. Thanks for the tip.

Erik Williams, it's true in a sense I've already told her our learning methods are different since we play different instruments. The focusing points and their difficult isn't the same for both of us. However, I think she's right when she says I must stay in tempo and that's why I came here looking for answers!

Mike Laird, it's usually painful playing with a metronome. Sometimes I do play using it, but counting in my mind tangle me up lesser. I think I must get a bit better before playing more with a metronome. But maybe I should invest a bit more on metronomes to get there faster.

Charlie Gibbs, thanks for the tip. My problem is right that one: I keep the beat unconsciously but when the thing gets difficult, I find myself stuck. That's why I was asking here if I should always count or just when things get bad.

May 6, 2018, 12:34 PM · I also would like to know what you guys do to keep the beat.
May 6, 2018, 7:14 PM · You just have to develop that internal metronome. Give it time. And practice.
May 7, 2018, 8:29 PM · 1) Don't worry too much. Learning the violin takes a lot of patience -- especially for an adult beginner. As you become a musician, you will develop an internal clock and an internal sense of rhythm over time, just like you will develop an ear for intonation. But this will take time, probably years.

2) Yes, practicing with a metronome is painful for everybody because it exposes flaws. It is tremendously useful, but don't torture yourself with a metronome too much. Like all things it is best done in moderation.

3) Pick some violin music that you love to listen to, that you're familiar with. Download the part, listen to the recording, try to follow the part with your eyes as the recording plays. Now listen again and try to count the beats in the measures. (Obviously it is good to pick a piece that is not to fast or too rhythmically complex). But anyway I think listening to music, following the part (even if you can't play it) can help you understand a sense of rhythm.

4) Your sister the organist is right in a sense -- when you learn to read music you are essentially counting every measure -- otherwise you can't read notes. Reading music is by definition counting.

5) No, there is no conflict between counting and playing with a good sound. It is definitely a struggle to play anything as as you get started, but just keep plugging away and you will progress steadily.

6) A good digital metronome (or a metronome app on your phone) might be able to help you with counting. Some metronomes and metronome apps can help you count, say, 4 beats to a measure by playing a different tone on 1,2,3,4. I think if you spend some time with your violin at rest -- just playing with the metronome -- that could he helpful. Try some 4/4 beats, then 3/4 , then 2/4 at different speeds. Then maybe have the metronome count eighth notes or 16th notes. Try to make it a game for yourself. And whatever you do, give your brain time to absorb this. It may take months to get comfortable with things.

May 10, 2018, 6:31 PM · Paul Deck, good to know it's a matter of time, thanks.

Thomas Boyer, these are really wise advices! Thank you very very much. I'll keep them in mind.

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