The Key is in the Counting

By: Ed Mascari

What Makes a Piece of Music a "Good Song"?

Most people say that a song is good if it has a good beat. Do you agree?

Why Do You Struggle with Rhythm?

Even if you think that the words, the melody or the harmony (chords) make a piece of music a good song, you probably agree at some level that the beat is often what draws you to a particular song.

So why do rhythm and counting feel like such a struggle?

If you are like most piano students, you simply want to play the tune, recognize the melody and feel the sense of accomplishment that comes from knowing that you played a song that you know.

When you sit at the piano you might think to yourself:
* Find those notes.
* What fingers should I use?
* How does that middle section go?
* Where do I go when it says 'to CODA'?

You may get so confused that you forget why you liked that song in the first place.

But usually it was the beat of the song that grabbed your attention.

Yet, like most things in life, you end up giving all of your attention to your most pressing problems.

As the old adage says: "Art imitates life." If you draw a parallel from your own life to your piano playing, you will quickly understand why the challenge of counting causes you to put keeping the beat on the back burner.

There are simply too many other musical issues vying for your attention!

You Can Have Your Cake and Eat It Too

Are you one of those people who eats the cake first or do you prefer to start with the icing?

Are you a person who can delay your musical gratification until after you establish the beat? Or do you have to listen to yourself play the melody right away?

You can have your cake and play the melody a few times with the right hand alone at first.

But if you want to eat it too, you will need to look at music differently.

Remember hearing one of your favorite songs sung by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett or Barbra Streisand?

What makes their renditions so special is that they (and other great artists) know how to interpret the melody in their own unique vocal styles. Do you know how they do this?

Frank, Tony, Barbra and others sing so freely because their background ensembles provide them with a great foundation: a GOOD BEAT.

Your Left Hand Is Your "Count Basie Band"

Once you begin seeing your left hand as a solid accompanying ensemble like the Count Basie Band that so often accompanied Sinatra, your piano playing will quickly improve!

You're probably wondering how you can expect 5 fingers of one hand to do the work of 17 professional performing musicians.

But when you look at what having a solid accompaniment does for the great song stylists, you can see how training your left hand to be the "band" can give your right hand the freedom to "sing".

The Secret to Getting Unstuck

If you're like most students, you find that keeping the beat is challenging.

You may often feel like counting restricts rather than frees you as you play a song.

The reason for this is that you are trying to accompany the right hand melody.

You probably often find it hard to fit a left hand umpah or 10th with the right hand melody, and so you get frustrated.

If you want to get unstuck, you will need to turn your thinking around.

Here's the secret to getting unstuck:

Start by giving your attention to learning the left hand accompaniment in strict tempo.

Once you can do this, everything else will fall into place.

7 Ways to Transform Your 5 Fingers into the "Band"

1. Learn the notes to be played by the left hand.
2. Start counting slowly without playing anything
3. Practice the left hand part alone slowly and in strict rhythm (use a metronome if you feel ready)
4. Start playing the song with hands together at a slow tempo several times: focus mainly on one short (2 to 4 measures) section at a time.
5. Use your metronome to gradually increase the tempo
6. Get a sense of being the "band" by using a rhythm unit (drum machine: many of the inexpensive keyboards have wonderful drum sounds)
7. Listen for the right hand melody and make sure that you can always hear it when playing hands together

One Final Note

The next time you listen to one of your favorite artists singing a good song, pay attention to the background. Notice how the solid accompaniment keeps the beat steady, the music flowing and the performer free to express herself.

From now on, give your left hand the long overdue attention that it deserves. Recognize how valuable its role is in creating great music.

Finally, remember that the key to success is in the counting. By starting with the left hand accompaniment and then developing a solid rhythm, you will be well on your way to playing many good songs.

Copyright © 2007 by Ed Mascari
508-651-2590 (Natick Studio)
Mail: 57 Hunter Ave, Hudson MA 01749-3043

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