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:
“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.