Practicing Backwards

Practicing Backwards

They say there’s no glory in practising but without practice, there is no glory.

I’d like to introduce you to a process that I’ve used frequently to practice my speech: Practising Backwards. It’s a process that makes deliberate practice much more bearable, and much more fun to do.

Practising Piano Backwards

Last week I bought a piano, and I fell in love with the instrument all over again. I used to train to be a piano teacher but failed when I quit playing in my teenage years. Those days, practising pages and pages of music scores were really tough, everyday practice is like a chore. Eleven years of that made me hate the piano for a while.

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Caption: the piano I bought last week.

This time though, I want to play the piano differently. I want to enjoy the journey of practising rather than just rushing to the end result, where I can play the songs after weeks of agony. Typically, practising old songs I can already play is easy, but practising new songs is really hard and require a lot of willpower. My fingers are so clumsy, the notes are so hard to read, especially when it’s not in the default scale of C Major.

I wondered, how do concert pianists practice their songs?

Turns out they practice the songs backwards1. Backwards? I can hear you ask. Like this?
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Caption: next level body bending challenge2

No, that’s not what Practising Backwards means. It means rather focusing your attention on the end rather than the beginning. In terms of practising a song, first, you divide the songs into several sections, then only train on the last section until you’re 80% good. No need to be perfect, good enough is perfect. Then continue to the section before that.

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Caption: I made two pencil marks to divide the music into two sections

Indeed, above is the current song I’m practising called Setsuko & Seita from Grave of the Fireflies (the saddest animation movie I’ve ever watched). The first few are the sections I haven’t practised much, so in this audio file (about 1.5 minute long) you can hear my hesitation at every single note I pressed in the first section. But when it gets to the next section, I’ve practised this well, and you can notice the difference in pace and confidence.

The result is much more joyful practice. For every new section that’s hard to do, you can get to the end of the song through the sections you’ve practised. It makes deliberate practice sessions much more bearable, even with one repetition, you’re guaranteed to reach the sections you’ve practised previously.

Apparently, this also corresponds with the peak-end rule whereby you would remember an experience based on the most intense points (the peaks) and how it ends.

This is cool! Where else can I apply this technique?

Practising Presentation Backwards

Memorising a presentation is another task I loathe. I love speaking fluently, but that’s only possible with some practice. In presentations, many research papers have also suggested that the end conclusion is usually what people will remember, so it makes sense to practise on that first rather than practising from the beginning.

For memorising a five-minute speech, I divide it into four sections, so a section is around 1-2 minutes. Record each section, add a sentence from the previous section and the next section for the sake of integration to other sections later.

Then the practising starts. At first, all I can do is to listen, but by the second time, I can start miming my mouth to start saying stuff together. When I think I’m ready to step it up, I play the recording a lot faster3, just like when I play the familiar section on the piano.

When I practice the next section, indirectly I’m practising the last section too, because the second last section leads to the last section. If I have a little bit more energy and willpower, I don’t continue onto the section I’ve already practised, I’ll repeat the new section again.

Somehow, the technique works so well that I’ve used it to memorise three songs in a weekend. One of my coaching clients also tried this technique while she was stuck in a 6-hour flight without being able to utter much. And by the time she landed, she has memorised 15 minutes speech word-by-word without saying a word out loud.

Practising is tiring, but it can be made enjoyable. Your brain enjoys practising on things you’re already good at, and that’s why practising backwards work. It ends the practice session on the most enjoyable note.

Someone wise once said: Don’t practice until you get it right. Practice until you can’t get it wrong.

 

 


  1. How to Memorize Music Quickly and Effectively – Josh Wright Piano TV https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hXgl8cGgO-Q 
  2. Backwards piano player (as seen on Ellen!) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dizRrbtxmHM 
  3. Playing slower will help build the myelin according to this video from TED: How to practice effectively…for just about anything – Annie Bosler and Don Greene https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f2O6mQkFiiw