Kids are always counting something. Just yesterday I heard: “Two days until my birthday!” Several hours later, a child said, “Seven days until spring break!” And then a senior walked in and announced, “Ten more days of school!” (How is this possible? It is March. Now when I was a kid….)

Of course, I count things too. There are ten daffodils in my front flowerbed and three yellow and red tulips have emerged in the back garden. I have five lessons to teach today and four books awaiting my pickup at the library to add to the seven sitting on my coffee table. We all count.

And then there’s the counting we do, or are supposed to do, while playing music. We count to keep track of beats and to fix rhythms. I count softly with my beginning students to help them stay on track: “Ta-Ta-Half-Note.” In orchestral rehearsals, I count measures. As a pianist used to having the entire score in front of me at all times, I never become completely comfortable with this sort of blindfolded music making. Seated at the piano in the back of the orchestra, I count, often desperate for some sort of sign that I haven’t completely lost my way.

I think we like counting because it organizes our lives and gives our worlds structure and form. There is a sort of security in information of any kind, a pushback against the scary unknown that is at the very root of existence. We like data, numbers, assurance that we matter. Devices such as the popular Fitbit work for this very reason: suddenly the rather arbitrary 10,000 steps becomes a goal that we can aspire to reach.

But honestly I wasn’t thinking about any of this when I devised a new practice technique that involves counting. Students and I have started calling this newest practice “Countdown” to distinguish it from all the other strategies we employ regularly (“ColdPlay.” “Rhythms.” “Metronome Mountain.” We do like naming things.).

“Countdown” works like this:

Locate a problem spot in the music. (This works particularly well when most of the piece is going fine but there are one or two isolated places where the forward motion grounds to a stop. A thorny chord passage at a cadence is perfect for “Countdown.”)

Turn on the metronome to the desired tempo. (In other words, the tempo one could play the rest of the piece with no problem.)

Play with the passage with the metronome, giving each note/chord four times its written value. (Quarter notes become whole notes.)

Now begins the countdown: Play it again, only this time each note gets three times its normal value. Then repeat once again, giving each note two times its written value, and then finally play it as written.

Of course, nothing would prevent you from counting down from 10 or 8 or 5 if the challenging spot is particularly troubling. Students and I have discovered that a few days of Countdown takes care of awkward spots or nasty technical passages. And there is something quite satisfying about the very black and white process of Countdown, as it leaves no grey areas of assessment, no room for quibbling over the repetitions or fudging the numbers.

Four. Three. Two. One. Countdown.