5 top tips for reverse learning

By Melanie Spanswick

Chances are that when you start learning a piece, you open the score, and begin at bar 1. When learning from the outset, we might read through our new piece, albeit slowly, to give us a rough idea of how it should sound, and then we nearly always return to the first page. But, providing we know how our piece sounds, understand the work’s structure, and know where the main themes occur, why not begin at the end? Reverse learning, or learning backwards, can be a most useful tool. Here are a few suggestions:




Go through your chosen piece and think about its structure, and where the thematic material occurs; mark it all in the score. Where does the thematic material begin? Notice the final appearance of the melody or melodic material in your piece. Is this near to the end of the piece? Or does the ending bear little resemblance to the opening? How does the melodic material develop? How does the texture develop? Or does it? The more you are able to observe at this stage, the easier the learning process will be; you are essentially ‘marking’ the most important aspects. You can do this away from the keyboard.



It might be best to start learning hands separately. Focus on the last couple of pages (or last couple of lines, if the piece is short). Observe the theme at the end in relation to that at the beginning. Learn both; aim to relate the theme on the last page or two, to where it appears earlier. This is not only making connections, but you are learning the last few pages as well as parts of the main body, and probably the beginning of the piece, too.



Once the thematic material has been assimilated and practised hands separately, now think about the accompaniment. This will clearly depend on the style of the piece. Write in fingerings, and when the last couple of pages feel secure (separate hands), aim to apply similar fingerings to similar passages earlier in the piece. Compare and contrast texture and harmony. In effect, you are learning sections which have note patterns in common, altogether. This can speed up the learning process.



Now think about the rhythm. As always when studying a new piece, try to sub-divide the beat; find a suitable slow pulse for the music on the last page or two, work at this, and then relate it to the rest of the score. Can you keep the same tempo throughout? Or does it change? Try not to add rubato at this stage.



As these practice tools have been applied to all the passages in your new piece, so you should be able to play through hands separately from the last page, through to the beginning of your piece (play each page through from the end of the work). Practice hands together, slowly, with a metronome, still working from the end, and gradually increase the speed. When confident, run your piece in reverse – from the beginning to the end!


Reverse learning might not be suitable for every new piece, but it will definitely speed up your learning skills and it will also ensure that you always know the last few pages as well as those at the beginning!


Melanie Spanswick

© Erica Worth. Taken at Steinway Hall, London