The Fine Art of Practicing Backwards

Practicing backwards struck me as odd when my piano teacher, Verna Harder,  first suggested it to me when I was a graduate student at the University of Texas in Austin.  I was skeptical until I discovered its usefulness. It’s so simple, but so illuminating. Start by playing the final note or chord of a phrase, section, or piece. Then play the penultimate note(s) followed by the final chord. Then keep adding prior notes/chords/beats, and continue to play to the end.  To give a verbal analogy, if your phrase is ”I saw a rainbow in the evening sky” you would practice it as follows:

“sky”

“evening sky”

“the evening sky”

“in the evening sky”

“rainbow in the evening sky”

“a rainbow in the evening sky”

“saw a rainbow in the evening sky”

“I saw a rainbow in the evening sky”

Note: Read aloud the verbal exercise above. Then perform the same exercise on a musical phrase. The meaning of the tonal relationships and patterns in the musical phrase audibly unfolds through practicing “backwards,” just as the meaning of the verbal phrase above visually unfolds and is enhanced  by the cumulative effect of reciting “backwards.

Musical Benefits of Practicing Backwards:

1. Practicing backwards improves your phrasing and continuity.

As you successively add each tiny block of music then continue to the end,  you feel the rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic momentum of the phrase.  If you are resolving the cadence with a crescendo or more likely a diminuendo, the dynamics also help you express the momentum and to feel the inevitability of the musical progression to the final cadence.

2. Practicing backwards improves your musical expression.

Dynamics will become more nuanced and integral to the musical phrase. If you start at the end of the phrase or at the climax of a phrase and practice backwards, you will be forced to really listen carefully and modulate the energy and volume of each sound leading up to the climax or to the cadence. The phrase is deconstructed, so to speak, and as you reconstruct it bit by bit, your heightened awareness of the momentum leading to the climax or cadence will be reflected in your dynamics.

3. Practicing backwards helps you memorize more quickly and confidently. As your understanding of the phrase and of the larger structural elements of form is heightened by practicing backwards, so  will your memory be improved. The music is no longer a bunch of notes, rhythms, harmonies, and fingerings to recall, but a sensible structure that imbeds itself in your brain as well as your fingers. Memorizing then becomes a truly musical event that occurs in your ears and brain, working in concert with your “muscle memory.” We often memorize by mindless repetitions of sections, relying on short term kinesthetic memory, which can be easily derailed by nerves. But practicing and memorizing backwards engages us more deeply and completely: ears, brain, fingers, and feelings, and thus solidifies our memory.

3 Responses to The Fine Art of Practicing Backwards

  1. I agree that practicing backwards works for just about anything, from learning music to memorizing poetry. Another thing it does is to help build your confidence as you play: the further into the piece you go, the better you know it, since you’ve practiced it backwards so many times.

  2. I have always done this when reviewing documents. It slows you down to actually look for spelling and grammatical errors. What a great idea as a practice method in music. I am going to pass this along to my 9 and 7 year old for their piano practice.

  3. Having studied with Verna (Miss) Harder, completed the pedogogy course, I can say enough about many of the bits of wisdom she offerred us from her extensive work with other great teachers, Dr. Guy Maier, among them. Practicing backwards can be of real use when you are having difficulty focusing on the music at hand, or if you have a student who is experiencing a lack of concentration in his or her endeavor to learn a new piece. So many other useful and common sense approaches she gave us! “Clapping and tapping” to acheive a sense of the rhythm of a piece. This seems quite elementary, yet it can be such a useful tool . I will always cherish the time I had to spend in her class. She was a “marvelous” teacher indeed!

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