Sometimes it seems like all I do, all day, every day, is count things. In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” T. S. Eliot wrote that he measured his life in coffee spoons. I don’t count coffee spoons, but I count the number of times I practice certain sections of my music, trying to make sure I am not inadvertently shortchanging any part. I count my laps in the swimming pool, staring at the same black line, the same cracks, the same holes and crevices in the bottom every morning. I count my repetitions of sun salutations on the yoga mat. At the piano with a tricky Bach fugue in front of me, I count: One-and-two-and-three-and-four. I count the number of students I have to teach every afternoon, checking them off in my head as they come in and out the sunroom and slam the screen door behind them (First Billy, then Claire, then Lucie.). I count three repetitions of the E-flat scale, each one faster than the last. I play three arpeggios, in three different keys. I read through three pages of a new piece and put it aside. Glancing out the window, I count five yellow crocuses in my neighbor’s garden. Crocuses in the desert? I almost giggle with delight.

Counting breaths has long been a tool of spiritual practice, a way of disciplining the mind and leashing our attention to the present moment. “The mind minds,” my yoga teacher often says. “Give it something to do.” And so, dutifully, I count, trying to harness my skittish thoughts, to steady my inner wobble. Three scales. Thirty laps. Five crocuses.

For musicians, counting is the basic tool of our work, our way of organizing beats and rhythms into subdivided measures and phrases: ONE-and-two-and-three-and-four-and…. goes the traditional method of counting beats in 4/4 time, but there are dozens of variations on this theme. 3/4 meter often implies a sort of dance-like feeling with the emphasis on the first beat of every measure. Music written in 6/8 asks musicians to give their attention to both the bigger beat groupings (two larger beats divided into three smaller pulses) and the smaller ones at the same time. Of course, splitting one’s attention between the macro beats and the micro beats isn’t limited to 6/8. Rhythmic integrity means keeping track of both, all the time. Feeling bigger pulses helps the forward direction of the phrase, while staying mindful of the smaller divisions keeps one honest and steadies the shorter, faster notes. Asymmetrical meters, like 5/8, require even more vigilance to the beat groupings. Sometimes the measures divide in groups of 2+3 (Chanting “Thomas Jefferson” makes this beat division clear.). Other times the division is in groups of 3+2 (“Benjamin Franklin”). But very simply, all of it, regardless of time signature or beat groupings, requires counting. Counting, counting, counting.

Counting rests offers something else to consider. Orchestral parts often have hundreds of measures of rests. In the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony, for example, the pianist plays her first note about ten minutes after the piece begins. That’s a lot of rests. I would never bother with counting all these measures while practicing at home, that seems a clear enough line to draw. But what about the random four or five (or six or seven or twelve) beats of rest that might occur in a piano part for a Beethoven cello sonata? Do I count those in my solitary practice hours, or do I just breeze through them, trying to save a couple of seconds? Both literally and metaphorically, it is all too tempting to skip the rests.

Musically speaking, this choice to ignore the rests has rhythmic consequences. Dropping beats by passing over the rests compromises the rhythmic integrity of the metric groupings, which then confuses my counting. Am I on beat one or beat three? (Is it Tuesday or Wednesday?) It’s sometimes boring to keep counting empty beats one and two and three and four and…no doubt about it. But stop? Ah, that’s when the trouble begins. If I have just skipped the last seven beats of rests there is no telling what my inner pulse might think.

Counting is also how we measure and account for long notes. While it might be assumed that there is nothing easier than holding a whole note (four beats) or a whole note tied to another whole note (eight beats), it can be excruciating to sit and wait out long note values. Especially when practicing alone. No one is watching; no one will know if I just skip over all those beats and press forward. This is a problem particular to pianists. Once we’ve played a note, our job is done; the decay of sound begins immediately upon attack. Singers and other instrumentalists must actively work to sustain a long note. A pianist’s work is to hold time and space and breathe. To try not to fidget or fuss, to relinquish our impulse to take on another task, to simply allow time to take over for the duration for the note. It is much like meditation practice, the work is to stay present, attentive, awake. It sounds easy. It isn’t.

And then there are those pieces that demand every ounce of my rhythmic concentration, and then some. Take Copland’s Piano Variations. In one place, there is a stretch of 5/8 followed by three measures of 7/8, three measures of 3/8, a 2/8 measure, back to 5/8 for two measures, a 6/8 measure, and then suddenly 2/4. And that’s just the transition between variations fourteen and fifteen. God help us.

The counting demands are so brutal, in fact, that the last time I played this piece I took the score with me on a vacation abroad. Matt had a gig leading a choir in a choral festival in Italy; I went along for the adventure, having no professional responsibilities whatsoever. “What will you do while I’m working?” asked Matt. “Lie on the beach under an umbrella and stare at the ocean,” I answered. It sounded like heaven. But instead, there on the Adriatic coast, I sequestered myself in the hotel room and stomped big beats, tapped little beats and chanted rhythms in hopes of internalizing Copland’s unpredictable rhythmic gestures. It helped, I think, but six months later, I was still counting. Desperately.

Sometimes I like to imagine what kind of art certain composers would create if they didn’t write music. Bach, I feel certain, would write long-winded prose. Huge masterworks that probed deep into humanity like Moby Dick or Anna Karenina or East of Eden. Debussy, I’m equally sure, would be a poet, who dabbled in haiku. Copland would be an abstract painter who magnified beyond recognition the simplest objects, à la Georgia O’Keefe. His paintings would be primal, natural, organic. Just like his rhythms ought to be. Making Copland’s rhythms sound simple and organic takes a lot of practice. And so for months, I stomped and chanted and tapped and sung, all the while counting, counting, counting.

Of course, counting is not only a way to make sense of rhythms, but also a way to keep track of repetitions. Every repetition is like putting a deposit into one’s musical bank account, slowly building over time an endowment of skills and patterns to draw upon. If only music (and life!) came with an instruction guide revealing the number of repetitions needed and an outline of no-fail practice steps: Every day for one month do ten repetitions of the exposition, twelve of the development, and seven of the recapitulation. Or, even better, if all our work needed the same number of repetitions, if I knew three times a day for six weeks would be the path to success no matter what the task at hand. Just show up and put in the time, inner peace guaranteed.

The practice of counting is both time and task, dancing in that sacred, murky place between clear definitions. Musicians are constantly juggling the demands of time versus task practice. In fact, it is almost a cliché, that image of the sullen child practicing the piano (or the violin, or the clarinet) with a kitchen timer by his side. Some of us do practice like we are punching a clock, keeping banker-like hours and arriving to our instruments at exactly nine o’clock every morning. The discipline of timed practice acts as a kind of container for our work and provides a built-in accountability for one simple reason: Time doesn’t lie. An hour is simply that and no more. It isn’t twenty minutes or five hours, depending on what sort of exaggeration might serve us at the moment. Timed practice removes the internal conversation about how long one will stay seated on the piano bench, much like a formal, group meditation practice absolves one of having to watch the clock. If something or someone else—the six-hour practice session, the Pilates teacher, or the black-robed priest with the gong—is in charge of holding the space, we are relieved of the responsibility, released from the inner negotiation and free to simply practice.

If timed practice accounts for actual time spent, task practice literally counts tasks, marking items off a to-do list, giving our work an achievement-based focus. Count eighth-note subdivisions of an asymmetrical 5/8 meter. Count seven pages of a new Mozart sonata. Count five repetitions of the exposition with the metronome: Tasks. As ego gratifying as it might be, there is a danger in counting reps and checking off tasks, tempting us to hurry, to rush through our practice, mindless of the work we are doing. Practice can become perfunctory, devoid of attention or curiosity. Scales and arpeggios. Check. Technique work on the coda of the Chopin. Check. Memorize the first page of the Brahms. Check. Work on the left hand of the Copland. Check. Check. Check.

But counting 112 measures marks a period of time as much as checking off a task. Counting students is more than accounting for a number of lessons, it’s acknowledging the time allotted: Three students equals two and a half hour hours. Those hours can be filled with any number of tasks, of course, but the time expenditure is a given. It is a held space, an empty zendo. Practice brings the meaning.

A life built around any practice is, for obvious reasons, predictable. Practice equals routine, a sort of monastic commitment to solitude and discipline, work and contemplation. Just as a person might go to the yoga mat every morning in order to discover what creaks and aches emerge in that day’s downward-facing dog, a musician returns over and over again to Mozart or Brahms as a way of clearing a path to the center of oneself. In the process of working through what we already know, we uncover a deeper meaning behind the familiar patterns. We practice not simply to learn new repertoire or to sharpen our skills—the third movement of a Haydn piano trio or the voicing of an intricately textured Debussy prelude—but so we can figure out who we might be inside that assortment of phrases and rhythms on that particular day. We practice scales and arpeggios not merely to rehearse the notes, but to reacquaint ourselves with the steps and leaps, shapes and contours of the physical gestures that act as a barometer to our inner beings. Land that quick jump of the right hand up three octaves on the keyboard and we know we have roots and the ground is solid beneath us; miss the leap and it tells us we have not only musical, but also psychological, work to do that day. Practicing isn’t just the means to a musical end; it is a rigorous path to self-knowledge. The meaning is in the doing.

Like the Buddhist monks who design mandalas out of colored sand and then pour the whole creation into the nearest river, every day I take the humble materials of notes and rhythms and build the world in which I live and work, only to begin all over again the next. Morning after morning, I set my coffee cup down on the desk beside me. I find my pencil and read through the notes I made the day before: Brahms intermezzo—hands separately for voicing. Beethoven sonata—fix the transition between the development and recapitulation! Bach gigue—slow metronome work. I open my music, I play one chord, and then another.

Most of the time I am entirely unaware of the counting that is happening just under the surface of my thoughts when I’m at the piano; I only become aware of this subconscious marking when, for whatever reason, I stop counting. This morning wrestling with Bach’s gnarly fugue in D-sharp minor, I count diligently for a measure and a half before the beats trail off in my head, my mind refusing to stay on task or time. I plan my next five hours, I find myself thinking about dinner, I make a grocery list in my head. My mind zips frantically from one novel thought to another, much like the hummingbirds that dart from one red flower to another in my garden.

When I focus my attention back on the music—one-two-three-four—without warning, the complicated musical lines fall apart completely, crumbling under my hands. This seems incredible, that it wasn’t the mental wanderings that caused my rhythmic problems, it was the act of returning to the work at hand that derailed me, but I have seen this too many times before to be surprised by my crash. Sometimes students and I play a game where I ask them to find something to pay attention to: the shape of the melodic line, the pedaling, the balance of sound between the hands, the evenness of the running passages, even their left big toe. I don’t care what the object of attention might be, just as long as they identify a focus of some kind. The student then begins playing but must stop the moment they find their mind straying from the intended focus. Usually this is about four and a half seconds after the first note. Best case.

In the end, the real gift of the practice of counting is that it asks me to pay attention, instead of flying off into the future or into the past. After all, a true and honest practice is the embodiment of present tense. Ignore the lure of nirvana, the enlightenment always just beyond one’s grasp and keep counting. Whatever the medium—be it meditation or yoga or piano or gardening—practice is a literal now. Ten thousand reps in that spot, 108 in this one, seven here, three there. The tasks pile up, the hours fill. Ultimately, practice takes as much time as it takes, the line between task and time forever blurred. Count this breath and then the next. Count this beat and then the next. This scale. This student. This sentence. This day. This hour.

Right this moment there are five yellow crocuses blooming next door. One, two, three, four, five.