"The End Is Where We Start From"

By Berr, Bruce | American Music Teacher, June-July 2010 | Go to article overview

"The End Is Where We Start From"


Berr, Bruce, American Music Teacher


Not a single day passes in my studio without the use of "backward practice." I don't mean playing the score Hebrew-style from right to left, but rather a way of extending spot practice. For example, one first masters a short tricky passage by itself, then backs up and masters it in context from the phrase before, then as an even larger chunk several phrases back.

On first thought it may seem insignificant which direction one extends a practice chunk, but doing so backward rather than forward is usually preferable and even necessary for mastery. I admit I was clueless about it until my first year of doctoral study, despite having played for 30 years and taught for 15. We read an insightful article by Rebecca Shockley from these very pages (February/March 1987 issue of AMT), "A 'Backward' Approach to Learning Music." What a revelation it was! I immediately put it into practice at the piano, literally, with quick improvements in physical security. Then I used it successfully in teaching children and college class piano. Later, I observed its value with leisure adults, university piano majors and minors, everyone.

Why is backward practice (BP) so effective? The typical early level student (and less accomplished player of any age) usually displays too much physiological excitation without the requisite inhibition to retain control. BP addresses this in several ways. It inherently creates many starting and stopping points, thus strengthening inhibition. (I tell my youngest students that when they learned how to ride a bike, they also had to learn how to use their brakes without flying off!) BP also helps build self-confidence: Our concentration tends to thin out in longer passages; by mastering the end of a larger chunk first, when we play into it we can still maintain accuracy even if concentration has waned.

BP thwarts "the dark halo." If there is a passage that I can't yet play reliably, I am likely to have accuracy problems leading into that passage, regardless of its true ease, due to anticipatory body tension. BP therefore can solve a problem in one place while preventing needless ones elsewhere. It also helps mainstream a previously difficult passage so that it no longer seems intimidating. It is one thing to toss off an excerpt by starting on it, quite another to play into it. …

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