Learning to play backwards?

Whenever I’m teaching a student and they start learning a brand new piece or song, a few things will happen.

They will often try to play the whole thing from start to finish all at once. If the piece is fairly simple then this can be good sight-reading practice. In terms of learning how to play the piece fluently and without mistakes however, this exercise probably won’t do much good. Instead what they need to do is break the piece up into small chunks and learn one bit at a time. We learn much faster when we don’t overwhelm ourselves with too much information all at once.

Another thing that always happens, without fail, is that the student starts from the beginning. Sure, why not? It may seem somewhat logical, but that doesn’t mean that it is the best way. After all, if they are learning the whole piece why does it matter where they start? A painter doesn’t start from the top of the page and work their way down. What I recommend is in fact the exact opposite: starting with the ending and working backwards. There are a few reasons why this can actually be a lot more effective.

Firstly, there is the psychology of it. If a student learns backwards, they will always be playing to the end. The end of the piece is usually the resolution and every time they get to that point they feel like they’ve achieved something. There is some satisfaction in playing to the end, regardless of where they start.

Secondly, as the student consistently plays to the end, they are forced to revise what they have already learned. It softens the blow of repetition. Often when students are learning a particular phrase I will only allow them to move on when they can play it ten times without a mistake or simply say, “repeat this part until you stop needing to think about it.” I am trying to activate the student’s muscle memory, and the only way to do this is by repeating the phrase over and over. This can be boring, but is absolutely necessary and is one of the fundamental reasons why we practice. Learning backwards can make this process more fun and engaging because the repetition is broken up by moments of learning something new and is much less monotonous.

Learning a piece from the beginning can often get frustrating because the student is very familiar with the beginning but as they get further and further through it, they get to the bit that they don’t know very well and eventually they give up. When the student learns backwards, as they play through the piece they actually get more and more familiar with it, which can be so much more pleasing.

Very often, the student is naturally very reluctant to learn something new, but enjoys playing what they already know. It can therefore be difficult to get them not to always go back and start from the beginning. I will often find myself saying, “You already know that bit, why not start from here instead?”. This is especially an issue with longer pieces but learning backwards eliminates this problem.

Of course with longer pieces, always playing right to the end can be extremely tedious and inefficient. It can get a bit silly if each time a student learns a new bar, they have to play through two minutes of music. In these situations it’s best to find natural stopping points and simply work backwards from there.

Learning backwards is not always the answer, but I do believe that it works very well for myself and a lot of the students that I teach. When I first discovered it, I was amazed at the results. I felt like I had been practising incorrectly for my whole life. Some students may find it very difficult and unnatural to work this way but its certainly something to try and I strongly recommend it, regardless of whether you are a teacher or student.