Learn Guitar Pieces from the End Backward – A Musical Strategy

Instead of beginning at the beginning, we can start at the end. We work backward towards the beginning.

And learning a piece of music this way, we grow more comfortable as we go. We march into more familiar territory with every bar and phrase.



The Problem: Starting Strong and Growing Weaker

Normal logic suggests we begin at the beginning. We start at the start. It only makes sense. Duh.

But this can lead to problems.

We may practice the material in the first section much more than the material at the end. We may have many times the practice minutes invested in the opening than in the later material.

So, when we share our music with others, we may grow anxious as we progress. We start strong, then fade.

Our memory may grow weaker as go forward. The most complex music (often in the second half of a piece) may be less than stable.

Or we may get tired of a tune before it’s completely performance-ready. So we move to new music before mastering the current piece.

When we do this, we are more likely to forget or make mistakes in the second half.

So how can we solve this problem? What can we do to ensure that we keep our music strong?

One Remedy: Learn Guitar Pieces From the End Back

One fine option is to learn pieces in reverse. Start with the material later in the piece, then move back towards the beginning.

This offers many benefits.

First, it feels like we’re solving a mystery. We put together the puzzle from the center out. As we move to material earlier in the piece, we discover how everything ties together and forms a complete piece of music. We notice the similar material.

Next, we may encounter the trickiest bits in the music earlier in our time with the piece. This means that we have more time invested where time is needed – on the hard stuff.

Note: as an alternative strategy, we can also begin with the most difficult passages. Then later we can learn the piece in its entirety.

Also, we may stay more interested in the music, because we are not yet making a complete musical statement. We may remain in a state of anticipation longer. This can be motivating.

And another fine benefit arises if we have a memory slip or fumble in performance. Here, we will be more able to jump to a nearby section or phrase. Where we may have needed to go all the way back to the beginning, now we have more landmarks within the piece from which to begin again.

Tip: Always Cross the Barline

Here’s one important tip for practicing any piece, but especially when working a piece in reverse.

Always play over the bar line, ending on the first note (usually) of the next bar.

This serves to make our practice sound more musical and less choppy and clunky. It helps us develop a greater sense of the music and the way the phrases move and resolve.

Barlines, like the prim and proper children of yesteryear, should be seen and not heard. Barlines usually sound unmusical. But crossing one note over the bar line sounds intentional and “right.”

Learn by Measure, Phrase, or Section

Learning a piece of music in reverse, we can work at different scales. We can work in large chunks or small.

We can work measure by measure from the end.

Or we can work phrase by phrase. Four-bar phrases are very common and often work well here. We may also choose 8- or 16 bar phrases, depending on the piece and our abilities.

Or we can work in larger sections. We can first learn the coda, then the last section, then the one before that.

However we choose to work, we are not required to start at the beginning. We can work in reverse, or even scramble the sections.

Have fun!

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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