Count Singing

Count singing as a method of learning music is something I learned (as did countless [forgive the pun] other choral directors) from Robert Shaw.  Mr. Shaw knew how to run an enormously efficient and productive choral rehearsal, always careful to save our voices for performance rather than squandering them during rehearsal.  One of his methods for accomplishing this was to use the concept of “count singing” during much of a rehearsal, and especially during the first few rehearsals of a work.  The idea was to save the words until much later in the rehearsal process, concentrating instead on the pitches and rhythms provided by the composer.   Mr. Shaw’s goal was to do everything he could to ensure that we honored the composer by singing exactly what he or she had put on the page.  I’ve never known a conductor who took this more seriously.  We would usually sing the primary beats (substituting a “t” for three) along with their divisions, e.g., 1 & 2 & t & 4 & for a piece in 4/4 time.  Should the piece have a lot of 16th notes, we might sing 1 ee & uh 2 ee & uh, etc., or 1 & 2 & t & 4 & twice in the measure (to keep down the confusion of “ee” and “uh.”  For those of you acquainted with count singing, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  For those of you who have not encountered it, I hope this at least gives  an idea of how it is done.

MOS has now completed its first two rehearsals of the Brahms Requiem.  We will have approximately ten rehearsals to learn the piece, and for that reason every rehearsal minute must be used wisely.  While I am a big fan of count singing, I don’t usually use it to the extent that Mr. Shaw did.  However, in these first two rehearsals we have sung almost entirely with numbers and that will continue for the next several rehearsals.   I can think of no better way to attempt to do justice to this masterpiece than to begin with correct pitches and rhythms. 

I’m interested in hearing from my readers (both MOS members and others) about your opinion of count singing.  Have you found it helpful?  If so, why?  If not, why?  If you’re a conductor, do you use count singing, and, if so, how often?   Whether you’re a singer or a conductor, how do you like to approach a new piece of music if you do not use count singing?

OK, let the ideas start rolling in (but if you’re a member of MOS, make sure to spend some of your time rehearsing your part!).

Showing 11 comments
  • Dan Pfeffer

    Count singing….it’s sort of like having to eat your vegetables as a kid. You don’t really like it, but you do it anyway, because you know it’s good for you! 🙂

  • mikebrowning

    “(as did countless [forgive the pun] other choral directors)”


  • stacy

    I enjoy count singing because I’m working toward being a better singer. Unfortunately, I don’t use it enough teaching middle schoolers. Have any ideas for incorporating it on a beginning level?

  • Michael

    Hi Stacy,
    Start simple! Something like “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” in unison. It’s amazing how fast singers of any age can capture the concept, as long as you do everything you can to ensure success the first couple of times.

  • Richard Ellison

    I love count singing. I get my music nerd on when I count sing. One night when I was driving home from MOS rehearsal I count sang along with Led Zep, which is both challenging and pointless.

  • Clay Hales

    What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

    …I envision Leonidas and The 300 Spartans count singing as they march toward Thermopylae.

  • Becky Peterson

    Can’t say I really enjoy count singing, but at least it’s not Solfege, which if you learn as a child is SO much more easy! Alas, now it would be like teaching old dogs. Also, gotta give a shout out to Richard…..Led Zeppelin? For real?

  • Jenny Rawson

    Count Singing……LOVE IT! There really is no better tool for learning rhythms. I have found in the 15 years I’ve taught, both with individuals and in a choral setting, that once the rhythm is learned everything else falls in to place MUCH more easily and quickly. Your eye has only to look at one thing, the note (instead of trying to read note and word all at once).

    The geek side of me gets really happy when I hear, “Okay, let’s count sing”, but then again I am the one who went walking to class in college singing warm-ups with my roommate, usually harmonizing in minor seconds, major sevenths or tri-tones.

  • Olga Espinola

    The value of count-singing is incalculable (pun intended). What no post has mentioned yet is what it does for the group as a unit. Think of what you hear around you from the parts that either support you with the same rhythms, or that counter your part with different rhythms. Think of all that you gain by listening to what the composer intended from this vantage point where the notes and the rhythms are starkly revealed. So often, this is obscured by not having done this tedious work in advance of a performance.

    There is much to be said for the vertical alignment of chords that can mainly be accomplished only when a group is completely in sync rhytmically, and of course tonally. No doubt, Michael can explain much better than I whatI mean by vertical alignment for a piece such as this, especially in the fugues.

    For me, having to use my ear more than anything, to learn a piece, this type of learning while extremely frustrating due to its dryness, is absolutely esential. In fact, it was under Mr. Shaw’s tutilage that I had the honor to learn this piece back in the 90s when we sang it in ASOC.

    Thank you, Michael, for using this valuable technique.

    And one final point to echo Michael’s thoughts about Mr. Shaw’s adherence to count-singing as a tool for learning: I actually can recall doing numbers literally almost up to performance week (ouch), but it works! Oh, it really works! For proof, see Mr. Shaw’s 17 Grammy’s, 3 awarded posthumously. He must’ve gotten something right, ya’ think?

    Olga Espinola

  • Quodlibet
  • Nick Thompson

    I am 75 and have been singing in a community chorus for about 5 years. The choir director has just introduced count-singing. I see the value, particularly since every piece we are singing this year seems to have measures that start on the upbeat. But for the life of me I cannot do it. I wonder if anybody knows of a web-resource or technique by which somebody old and dumb could learn it. Thanks.

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