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Counting Out Loud and The Civil War of Self

Updated: Aug 15, 2020

When I was a child taking piano lessons, I used to hate the answer "Because I said so!" Even as a kid I thought it was a cheap answer. I always thought that "I don't know, we can look it up" was a much better approach. I remember the first time a student asked the question "Why should I count out loud?" I thought to myself, "Hell kid, I have no idea." I remember coming up with a cheap answer like, "... because it helps!" My ears could not believe what my mouth was saying! I may of well have said "Just do what I tell you." So I stopped the lesson and told my student... "listen, I know it works, but I don't know why. I will tell you what, I am going to look into it this week and get back to you next week with a good answer." So that is what I did. I found myself going down a weird rabbit hole... one that gave me the creeps.

See, as a growing pianist, most teachers who are worth their salt demand counting out loud when they are playing. By doing this, it helps them work through tough rhythmic passages or tighten up tempo variances. It also helps with adding dynamics (volume settings written in music) and contributes heavily in the memorization process. But, when counting out loud is mostly used is in the learning of a musical work; usually playing hands separate and then marrying them together to achieve success! It works, but why?

Well after doing a fair amount of research, I found the answers and they made sense, but I found them disturbing, yet cool. Actually, what I discovered made my skin crawl. So, excited with the knowledge I found, I enthusiastically went back and reported to my student.

"That is sort of gross..." he responded. "I know..." as I continued.

"What if I told you that you have two brains operating inside of your head?" I asked gleefully. I continued, "It is common knowledge that right brained dominant people, (a term referring to a dominance in right hemisphere of the brain) have a tendency be more creative. Left brained dominant persons have a tendency to be mostly analytical and methodical in their thinking..." I reported. My student responded with a hesitant "okay?" "Neurosurgeons who treated severe epileptic patients suffering from life threatening seizures did so by severing the corpus callosum!" I responded. "Do you know what the corpus callosum is?" I queried. "No" said my student, wondering where in the heck this was all going. I joyfully continued "The corpus callosum is a broad band of nerve fibers joining the two hemispheres of the brain, enabling communication between them." "Okay..." my student retorted. "Think of it as a super highway for neurons to pass information between right and left hemisphere. Just by listening to music you stimulate several areas of your brain. But when you play and instrument that your brains sets a blaze with stimulation. Playing an instrument is the equivalent of a full brain work out. Playing the piano is far more complicated than the average monophonic instrument. For pianists, that workout is amplified for all the things we have to do; such as read notes in time and their can be several at once, then we bring out dynamics, we balance our hands and fingers, we learn to phrase tones to make them 'legato' (smooth and connected) or play them short and detached (staccato), we have to pedal and sustain or half tone pedal, learn how to use the una-corda or sostenuto pedals; and what about adding emotion and color using accelerandos or ritardandos? All of this with what can be contrasting rhythms, such as Chopin's Fantasy Impromptu in D flat minor? Where you have a sextuplet to be played in the time of 4 against your other hand playing a straight four rhythm." I paused to take a breath. "Okay" my student replied with a little more interest and vigor. "We do a lot, and it is hard!" I said assuredly. "Yup!" he firmly agreed. "Now..." I said with a little more fire in my voice "... you remember those neurosurgeons I was talking about earlier?" "Yeah?" he responded. "Well along with neuroscientists they studied the effects of what happened to those epileptic patients who had their corpus callosum severed. They found that people felt as if there was someone else living in their head... and that person could have differing beliefs, ideas, and even tastes. One lady had a problem with her hand making decisions for itself... like closing doors as she was opening them. Weird things. Neuroscientists have been able to study patients with split brain syndrome using FMRI and PET scans and are finding strange results." "Like what?" my student asked. "Like the brain literally splits when they cut the corpus callosum. Thus making two brains operating in one head!" "That is sort of gross..." he responded. "I know..." as I continued. "... but it is a reality of nature. The separation in hemisphere is real. That is why we work at playing one hand at a time. When we sing the tones, it helps us memorize the notes and helps us to remember what the song sounds like when we go back and play it again. Remember, we agreed that one side of your brain is logic and one is creative. Both see the world differently. The one cord that threads them together is counting out loud. If, when learning, the same process for each hand is applied, then both right hemisphere and left hemisphere can develop muscle memory and the act of counting is the anchor that ties them together." I said with conviction. "The louder and more confident you count, the more certainty you put in your piece! Listen kid, we all hate counting out loud in the beginning. It's like a civil war inside of us... one side knowing it is good for us to do... and the other side that thinks it's hard. But the more you do it, the easier it becomes as the songs get harder. It's almost like magic or a super power... when you do it, music happens!" "I see. That was interesting, Mr. O'Neil. Thank you for looking that up for me. Now I know, and I am going to count from now on. It will make things easier." He got it. He knew why it was important... and it became important to him. The fruit that came forward from a bit a research over the standard reply that most kids get, really opened my eyes. Now, whenever a kid asks why... I tell them. And know you the reader also know why Counting Out Loud is so important... it gets specially capitalized in all my students weekly notes!

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