Back Up! – Practising the Piano

In an effort to assist students with their learning, I will often ask for the beginning and the end of the piece in a lesson. Or perhaps even work on the last movement a bit before embarking on the first (I have written about this in a previous post so I won’t repeat myself here). If I didn’t do this the beginnings would always tend to be better than the endings, because they have received more time, attention and repetition.

I would like to offer a couple of thoughts for backwards practice that I think will help to shift problems as well as provide a bit of variety in the practice routine.

Practising Backwards – Phrase by Phrase

I was very happy to hear Simone Dinnerstein talk about this type of practice in a radio interview she gave on Performance Today (listen from 6:40, although the whole interview is interesting). I have been doing this for years, and can attest to its enormous value. The purpose of this is to strengthen memory by training us to break the habit of knowing the music only in sequence. If we know a piece only in relation to the phrase or section that has come before it, we are at serious risk of a breakdown if we lose our place in performance. Practising like this means we know our piece literally backwards as well as forwards!

  • Play the last phrase (or section) of a the piece.
  • Go back to the phrase (or section) before that, and now play the two phrases in sequence.
  • Repeat this process until you reach the beginning.

Our natural tendency to start at the beginning means we are often more comfortable with beginnings than endings. An added bonus of this approach is you’ll know the end of the piece better than the beginning! If you are intending to play the piece from memory, then there is no better was to strengthen the memory than this process (to be practised from memory, of course!).

Practising Backwards (and Forwards!) – Note by Note

There is an awkward little moment in the Khachaturian Toccata that will respond very well to practising the passage backwards, note for note. By this, I mean starting with the last note and actually playing the note pattern in reverse (make sure to use the original fingering though, or you will make matters worse!). The passage I refer to is the LH, second half of this bar:


Here is the passage backwards:

Toccata 1

Then make a loop by practising the passage backwards then forwards, repeating the loop (perhaps from slow to fast) until it fits like a glove:

Toccata 3

If you need an interim stage, you can make short loops of a few notes (again, it is important here to ensure the fingering is consistent with your end goal). Meander back and forth, adding a note at a time to the group thus:

Toccata 2

These are just two examples of backwards practising. For more on this, consider reading the chapter Making a Chain from Volume 2 of my eBook series, Practising the Piano (Part 1).

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