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June 10, 2013

To learn something difficult, start with the end

I don’t remember who taught me this, but I was young and studying the violin: try starting at the end and working your way backwards.

I think this may be one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given, but it’s counter-intuitive enough that I can forget to take it. More often than not, when I have a new piece of music to learn, I’ll start at the beginning, go as far as I can at whatever level of effort I’m up for at that moment, and then come to a screeching halt at the first rough spot. Then I might go slowly through the rough spot, and pick up momentum again when I’m through it, or (more likely) I might just go back to the beginning and play the part that made sense one more time. 

If I keep doing this, I will build a screeching halt into the music I’m trying to learn, because that’s how I’ve always played it. I don’t think this is exactly what Aristotle meant when he said “We are what we repeatedly do,” but he was right. The body learns through repetition. If we repeatedly (more than 3 or 4 times) slow down when we get to measure 10 because it confuses us, we will have to unlearn that slowing down even after we know what measure 10 is supposed to sound like. And if we repeatedly start to feel anxious somewhere in measure 7 or 8 because we know that measure 10 is coming up, we will have to unlearn that later, too. 

Unlearning a panic attack is always harder than learning the notes. Therefore, endeavor to practice as calmly as possible. 

And consider starting from the end. I mean, literally: play or sing the last measure of music as beautifully as you can, then back up one bar and play or sing to the end. Back up another bar, etc. Going measure by measure might not makes sense for the piece of music you’re working on. Phrase by phrase might be better, or note by note. If I’m looking at three or four measures of sixteenth notes, I’ll go one beat or half beat at a time, starting from the end. 

Starting from the end minimizes the chances I’ll practice crashing and burning half-way through the run, because I really know where I’m going... and I know who’s going with me. I know who I love, and the dear know’s who I’ll marry... 

I digress. Everything has an end, including measure 10. Start with the first note of measure 11 and work backwards, one bit at a time. See if it helps. 

Hitchy-bits aside, singing a song from back to front at least once is a very good thing to do, because we always sing the first page more times than the last, and it’s good to shake things up. I guess I’m suggesting that we can know songs backwards and forwards. I think it’s fun to try. 

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