Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Teach Beginners to Count Rhythms

It's easy for a young musician to get lost
without some kind of counting system.
By now counting systems have been adopted by almost everyone, but some people still avoid teaching a counting system. My thought is that most people who don't teach a counting system probably are not familiar enough with one, or perhaps they already use one and have thought about switching to another but haven't because they're not used to it. Either way, students need a schema that helps them understand how to break down rhythms, and counting systems become extremely useful the more complicated the rhythms get. Personally, I'm an Eastman Counting System guy. I wanted to provide links to pages explaining the counting systems, but after the first 3 pages of google search I gave up on finding them. So here I'll briefly explain the two most widely used systems for band, traditional and Eastman, and then tell you why I recommend A) Using a counting system and B) Using Eastman.

Why Counting Systems?

As I mentioned a second ago, the reasoning is simple. Students need a system of understanding the division of the beat. Some students are smart enough to get it without the help, but using a counting system will help many others who might otherwise be lost to it. And if it's good for those students, it's good for all of them.

Of course you could also use words, like "piz-za pie", but the possibilities are extremely limited. It works, but it should be limited to elementary music. If your students ever have the chance to tackle the best music ever written, they'll need a counting system that uses a few simple rules and allows them to apply those rules systematically to complex rhythms. That's why counting systems are crucial. It's not about the first year of band, it's about years 4-8 and beyond. 

Eastman and Traditional Systems

There are now a range of counting systems. The longest held are these two systems. Here are the rules for each system:

Traditional Counting System
1. Any note starting on a downbeat, you say the number of the beat that it starts on.
2. Any note starting on an upbeat, say "And"
3. Any note falling between a downbeat and an upbeat, say "E"
4. Any note falling between an upbeat and the following downbeat, say "A"
5. For triplets, successive eighth notes after the downbeat are "La" and "Li"
6. Full Disclosure - I don't know how sixteenths are counted in 6/8 time. I've asked a couple of people who used Traditional Counting for their beginners, and they weren't sure either! Every possibility we could come up with seemed overly complicated.
7. Mixed meters combine the above rules.

Eastman Counting System
1. Any note starting on a downbeat, say the number of that beat.
2. Any note starting on an upbeat, say "Te"
3. Any note between any downbeat or upbeat, say "Ta"
4. For triplets, successive eighth notes are "La" and "Li", and rule 3 still applies for sixteenths.
5. In mixed meter, all upbeats are called "Te" for simplicity.

To bring the point home and show this on paper, here is a side by side comparison I put together.

">" indicates a verbal 8th note pulse.

Why I Recommend Eastman Over Traditional

Notice on the 16ths in triplets I duplicated the Eastman counting because I wasn't sure, and because it was the most simple possibility of those I was given. Also notice how much easier it is to keep track in mixed meter. From here you can imagine the counting of either system in a piece like Bernstein's Profination, or counting sixteenth note rhythms in mixed meter with either system. The less rules, the better, as Gary Garner would advocate. The Eastman System is actually easier, and the syllables are no more difficult to learn. Finally, the T syllables translate more directly to articulation on wind instruments. I've heard great bands with great teachers using the Traditional system as well, but most of the outstanding bands in Texas use Eastman.

And another quick note on Eastman. I've seen a variation on this that more closely matches Traditional where the sixteenths are counted, " 1 ti te ta 2 ti te ta". While this maintains the articulation benefit, it's also more of a tongue twister, and just another rule to remember. The benefit is it makes communicating which 16th is being misplaced more clear, but then when you get to sixteenths in triplets, having "ti & ta" becomes either too complicated, or the "Ti" becomes obsolete. This is where I cite the KISS method and recommend sticking to the original Eastman System rather than the modified system.

As a quick note, I also recommend teaching beginners to tap their foot with precision. In simple meter, the downbeat happens when the toe hits the ground and the upbeat happens when the toe hits the up position. With triplets, you can use "Down, Press, Up", where press is the second eighth note and is executed by pressing your toe into the ground, thus lifting the heel into the air. You really have to discipline them to do it, but it's worth it as it helps them to physically feel the 8th note division of the beat.

Ultimately, as long as you're using a counting system (regardless of whether it's one of these two or another), you're giving your students more than they would have otherwise. The most important thing when teaching rhythm with any system is, after all, precision.

Which counting system do you use and why? Please share in the comment section!

Thank you for reading, and until next time, take care and good luck!

Musically yours,
Mr. Cooper

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