... a-one and a-two and-a
Have you ever watched a concert and wondered how the players that are not playing, just waiting for their turn, keep track of where they are? I had to do a lot of just sitting around in my symphony days, and I can tell you, counting is boooooring!
Actually, a lot depends on what kind of music it is. For swing, dance, jazz bands and the like, phrases most of the time are 16 bars (measures) long, and you get so used to the rhythm of it, you don't really count. You can tell when a phrase ends, and you wait for your chance. Marches are straightforward, with few rests, and usually phrased simply.
The real challenge is in symphony numbers. Wagner especially! I played French Horn most of my life,(see "Blowing it off") and I remember sitting through 50 or 100 or more bars of rest while the strings are noodling along with no recognizable phrasing. There's no guessing when to come in -- you just have to count.
Every musician I know counts on his/her fingers. This is no surprise, of course, but you really don't see it being done. You just put a little pressure on each fingertip for each measure. So what do you do after 10? Well if it is only 30 measures or less, you can probably remember which decade you are in. For longer rests, you may invent your own tricks. I would use fingers without thought; then at each ten, I would silently say "ten" or "twenty", etc. This works pretty well until you get close to or above 100.
I use to then move my left foot out slightly to indicate the first century. Then the right foot out at 200. This pretty much covered all cases. The truth is there was almost always some recognizable change in the piece that allowed me to start over at a later spot.
The amazing thing is that you never see anyone doing this. Other musicians may do things differently, but you and I will never know. Unless you write in to tell us!
July 2, 2010