We know them well.
If you are a kid, it’s 1…2…ready…go!
dancers prefer &…5…6…7…8!
while garage bands opt for 1……2……a1….2….3….4!
These are count-offs.
The primary job of a count-off is to make sure everyone starts at the same time. They are to music what on your mark, get set, go is to racing. But it is just as important to do count-offs when practicing by yourself. In fact, whether or not a student gives themselves a count-off before playing is one of the first things a teacher looks for when evaluating the level of a student.
While the benefits of count-offs in a group setting are obvious, here is why count-offs are so important when you are practicing by yourself:
Count-offs set the tempo
By giving a count-off you are choosing the tempo you will play the piece, rather than just trying to play through it as fast as possible. Children are especially prone to runaway tempos, as they tend to want to do everything (except getting ready to leave the house) as fast as humanly possible. By giving yourself a count-offs you are ensuring that you will be playing at a reasonable and steady tempo.
Count-offs help you prepare mentally
Count-offs give you time to prepare mentally and physically to play. They force you to be intentional in your practice, rather than just flailing around until you get stuck or lost.
Count-offs help you distinguish between tempo and rhythm
“But wait,” you say, “aren’t tempo and rhythm the same thing.” Actually, no. Tempo is the underlying pulse of what you are playing, while rhythm is the specific rhythmic patterns that you play. You can think of it like an assembly line. Tempo is the speed at which the belt is moving; rhythm is all of the things that the robots are doing as the line is moving. If the belt is not moving at an even tempo, the robots will not be able to properly time their actions.
How to develop the count-off habit
So if count-offs are so important, how do we practice them?
Like any habit you want to develop, count-offs need to be practiced intentionally and consistently.
Pick one exercise of your practice—sight reading, a memorized piece, or technical exercise, for example. Before you start, think about the tempo that you want to play. (Assuming it is in 4/4), count 1…2…3…4….then play while counting aloud.You might find that when you start trying to play while counting aloud things get wonky. If this happens, try just clapping the rhythms while counting aloud with a count-off.
After a few sessions only practicing count-offs on one part of your practicing, start giving yourself count-offs on other exercises. Within a few weeks, you should be using count-offs on everything that you practice.
Be patient and persistent in developing this vitally important habit and someday you will be able to 1..2..rock’n’roll with the best of ‘em.