Practicing backward chaining

Someone reminded me of that good old trick “backward chaining” the other day and I am most grateful. I have used it from time to time but forgot what an excellent tool it is. So as I felt a bit stuck with the Chopin 10:6 etude, I tried this method and yes, what a relief.

As I already have written, this etude has a slow and steady tempo which means it should not be that awfully difficult to learn, but in return it is so filled with flats, double flats, restores, sharps etcetera and harmonic changes that it feels like getting lost in the jungle after a while. The reward is awesome, as it is as beautiful and hypnothic as only Chopin could do,  but for someone at my level this was a challenge:

Anyway, you patiently work your way through harmony after harmony and watch the key shifts carefully, adding note after note (I supposed better pianists can grab this in larger chunks than me, but for me it was really a note-by-note-approach, so far. I would have made one million errors otherwise.) And it is quite natural to begin from the beginning and work all the way to the end, right? Only problem here is that you are totally exhausted already after a few bars. So – you start all over again. Or work with just one bar at a time. But from a psychological point of view this is like going uphill all the time. After having grit your teeth over the first page, you realize that there still are two more pages to go. Sigh. This will take weeks. And that thought could be, let’s say, a bit crestfallening.

And the natural thing is to keep on polishing the beginning, as this is what you know the best, because we all love to excel in things that are familiar to us rather than constantly play as bad as only a beginner does. After all, we all strive to play the piano and make music, not just dwell in the “I do not master this at aaaall” phase. So it is very tempting to do this polishing even before you have reached the end of this project. The result will be the usual one – finally you can play the beginning brilliantly, then it quickly starts to deteriorate and somewhere near the end it is quite lousy. Not to mention all the where-do-I-go-now’s that I have already mentioned earlier. They create a lot of annoying micro stops that you, in worst case, stop noticing yourself and then the final result will be a rather limping version. Believe me – I know what I am talking about. When I have recorded myself, I sometimes have got some nasty surprises when I’ve listened to the playback …

In situations like these, the backward chaining is a marvellous tool. For those who have not tried it, the principle is very easy: you start by playing the very last note/chord of the whole piece. Do it until it “sits” nicely. Then you play the second last note plus this final chord, again seriously polishing it until it sounds perfect. Then the third last note plus the second last note plus the final chord, and so on, slowly building up the chain. If you should play HT or HS depends on the difficulty.

The big advantage is that you work “downhill” by this approach. The playing will become easier and easier because you get more and more familiar with the end of the piece, so instead of building up tension and agony on your way into the twilight zone, you get more relaxed and secure the further you get. Of course, when the chain has become very long, you should not waste time playing it all to the end every time, but now you have the comfortable feeling of knowing that you already can play that part. Another big advantage is that you totally get rid of those micro stops I mention above, as “next move” will always be more familiar than the previous one. But, note! This assumes that you do not cheat too much, which could be tempting. Cheating could mean that you learn to play, let’s say, bar 11. Then you learn bar 10, but from the beginning instead of the end, and there you already have a little transition between 10 and 11 that could be a potential problem, as you have broken the chain. (But if you have no problem with that transition, then why fiddle around with backward chaining – just play, then!)

And the third plus is that at least I can memorize the notes much easier in this way. Last night I read some music in bed and memorized about 10 bars from end to beginning, and today I could sit down at the piano and play it all from memory! Wohoo! But now let’s remember that I have worked with these bars before, although without being able to memorize them, and I could only play them HS. But to me this was real progress.


Anyway, the bottom line is that I can play the whole etude now – not perfectly, by no means, but in tempo, without stops and with not too many mistakes. The price I pay is that I have practiced this so intensely during the last few days that I am getting dizzy, so no more practice today. So backward chaining really is the shit when it comes to learning complicated pieces – could be used for just parts of pieces, of course!

(A little footnote about the tempo: I prefer about the same tempo which Pollini uses in the recording here. The notation says it should be played much faster, really – but hey, it sounds better this way, so I do like everyone else and don’t bother about the metronome annotation.)

But of course I must also mention some disadvantages as well. It could be rather challenging to bring a half-done piece to your teacher, as they always ask you to start playing from the beginning, and that is now your weakest spot and there is risk that your teacher interrupts you early and shows some disappointment: you don’t understand this piece, do you? Have you practiced this at all? So you have better explain your approach carefully before you begin. I did this with my teacher some days ago and it was all right, she is familiar with this way of learning. But she also mentioned that it could be a good idea to work from both sides simultaneously so I add this remark for my readers to consider. After all, what I write in this blog are just my own opinions and thoughts, by no means any expert “truths”.

The other bad thing … well, let’s conclude that this method is wonderful for the mechanical learning, but not for the musical idea. It is like reading a novel in the reverse order, it does not make very much sense. On the other hand, once you know where to put your hands, you can spend the rest of your life analyzing the piece and make it sing without agonizing over next technical hurdle and that end section which you haven’t practiced as much as you should have.  So you still have all that work ahead of you … but who cares, as it is now the fun begins?



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