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Should students count aloud when sight-reading?

Many piano teachers believe that it is imperative to teach students to count aloud when learning a new piece, and they certainly have support in many of the popular teaching methods. However, I have to ask: if counting aloud while playing is so important for developing good rhythm skills, how do trumpet and clarinet players learn to perform in rhythm?

Have you ever thought about the complexity of sight-reading at the piano? Along with hand-eye coordination, there is deciphering pitches, finger numbers, and note values—all of this while (hopefully) listening, too. Add a verbal arithmetic element, and you have quite a challenge for the developing musician! Multi-tasking is a common term these days, and we all do it. "Interference" is a psychological term for what happens when the tasks compete for necessary attention; for example, if you're talking on a cell phone while driving, you are likely to make more driving errors.1 I find that if someone asks me a question while I'm playing the piano, it's very difficult to answer without making verbal or musical mistakes. So, do students make more errors when they count aloud while reading music? 

An experimental study

To test this question, I ran an experimental study at Florida State University in 2009–2010. The thirty-five participants were undergraduate non-keyboard music majors enrolled in group piano classes taught by six different instructors. After a minute's practice time, each student performed two short sight-reading exercises, one while counting aloud and one while playing silently. The exercises were rotated and conditions were reversed for consecutive students; for example, exercise "A" was played first, counting aloud, and "B" second, silently. The next student played "A" silently, followed by "B" counting aloud, etc. The digital piano was recorded directly via the headphone jack, and these recordings were subsequently analyzed for the number of both rhythmic and note errors. Errors included wrong, absent, or added notes, notes played significantly early or late, and re-starts. The results, analyzed by statistical software, revealed that participants made significantly more errors while counting aloud. I repeated this study the following year and recorded similar results. 

The task of counting aloud appeared to have added a degree of difficulty which had a negative effect on the students' sight-reading accuracy. For purposes of analysis, I divided the participants into two groups: students who had one year of piano class and students who had two to three years of piano class. In itself, this was not statistically significant, but was interesting: although the two to three-year group performed more accurately than the one-year group when silent, they averaged nearly as many errors when they counted aloud (see Figure 1). 

Many teachers have told me that they generally teach children to count aloud successfully from the very first piano lessons; however, several teachers confided that they had transfer students who became frustrated when asked to count aloud, and claimed they were unable to do it. Perhaps the latter group could more easily be compared to the college students in my study because the requirement to count aloud was not incorporated at the very beginning of lessons. Maybe instead of helping any piano teachers believe that it is imperative to teach students to count aloud when learning a new piece, and they certainly have support in many of the popular teaching methods. However, I have to ask: if counting aloud while playing is so important for developing good rhythm skills, how do trumpet and clarinet players learn to perform in rhythm?  Maybe instead of helping students realize the rhythm, adding verbal counting confused those who were not accustomed to doing it. 

Too many numbers?

 Another complication to consider when directing students to count out loud is that the finger numbers printed on the music do not match up with the counting numbers. Consequently, a student might be looking at the number "4" while saying "2." In addition, the student has to determine simultaneously which hand holds the finger to be used. I came across an experimental study that employed a complex finger-tapping task combined with verbal arithmetic.2 The author wrote about the complications caused by interference and demands on both brain hemispheres, particularly when participants tapped fingers with both hands. Interestingly, there was a larger negative impact on tapping accuracy than counting, which might relate to increased musical errors when students counted aloud in my experimental study. Since I didn't count verbal errors, it would be interesting to repeat my study and examine verbal as well as keyboard errors.

So what's the alternative?

Many music teachers never require students to count aloud, yet manage to teach them to read rhythms accurately along with pitches. If you have students who have trouble counting aloud (or if you'd prefer to try an alternative), there are a variety of things you can do. The easiest technique involves isolating the rhythm from the pitches before attempting to play the exercise or piece on the piano. Some method books recommend tapping rhythms first, while perhaps counting aloud at the same time. This is much easier when processing the notes and fingerings are taken out of the picture. Or, the teacher can count while the student taps, and vice-versa. The physical motion of tapping can help the student "feel" the rhythm once he or she tries it on the keyboard. As any experienced teacher knows, students who do things wrong the first time have a tendency to repeat their errors—so, it's a good idea to take steps toward rhythmic accuracy from the beginning. 

There is certainly not enough evidence to support changing the mind of a teacher who firmly believes that counting aloud from the start of piano lessons is an integral part of instilling a good sense of rhythm in students. However, there is evidence that it may add a complicating factor that can lead to increased sight-reading errors, particularly among students who have not been taught to count aloud from the beginning. In my own experience as both a teacher and researcher, I have found that students can learn rhythmic accuracy just as well by using techniques other than counting aloud. 

Notes:

1Beede, K. E., & Kass, S. J. (2006). Engrossed in conversation: The impact of cell phones on simulated driving performance. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 38, 415-421. 

2Serrien, D. J. (2009). Verbal-manual interactions during dual task performance: An EEG study. Neuropsychologia, 47, 139-144.

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