Going Backwards

Going backwards seems like a bad thing. We all want to go forward. Progress and accomplishment! Going backwards means you’re getting worse, right? But wait. What does it really mean to go backwards? It’s really just a change of direction.

Recently I went for a run. It was the normal course I usually take, but this time I went the opposite direction. It felt more like a journey. It seemed to take longer and I noticed different things, even though it was the same old route. It struck me how that simple change made the experience more interesting. I felt more engaged, more in the present moment.

This can be applied to music in a few different ways. More generally, changing your perspective can transform the same old thing into something refreshing.

Backwards chaining

A fun form of practice variation is to play things backwards. An online student named Margaret shared a technique she called Backwards Chaining. In this practice, you play the last phrase of a tune, then the second-to-last phrase and then play them together. Then you practice the third-to-last phrase and continue the process until you are starting at the beginning and playing the entire tune all the way through.

Reversing a phrase

In addition to working backwards through a tune, you can work backwards through a phrase. This is a fun way to practice the technical challenges of a phrase in a fresh way. Basically, you play the notes of a phrase in reverse order. You can then use all the other forms of variation to extend and deepen your practice.

For example, the fourth quarter of Arkansas Traveller is often difficult for students:

A3-2-3-0-1-3-0 D3-2-0-1-2-0-0

Reversing the whole phrase we have:

D0-0-2-1-0-2-3 A0-3-1-0-3-2-3

Let’s break it into smaller, more manageable parts. Start by practicing this:


Once you get the fingering, loop on it continuously until it flows and sounds musical. You may need to alter the note lengths a bit to get a loop that flows nicely. Next, try to add some variation.

OK, cool. Now let’s look a the next bit of the reversed phrase:


Apply the same process with this.

By going backwards you create a whole new piece of music while still practicing the same technique. It makes practice an adventure. But the good kind of adventure, not the kind with snakes and diarrhea. ? ?

Reversing patterns

Ok, so maybe I’m a little too old for poop jokes. Speaking of sports, you can also reverse short rhythmic patterns.

Hoedown is long-short-short. Reverse hoedown is short-short-long.

Tucka is short-short-short-short-long-long, so reverse tucka is long-long-short-short-short-short.

Learn more about playing rhythmic patterns in the lesson, Fiddling With Patterns.

As a fiddler, you want to do just that: fiddle with things. If you normally start something downbow, try to start it upbow. If you normally eat cereal for breakfast, try eating it for dinner. Uh oh, now you know that I eat cereal for dinner ? .

There’s a hidden benefit to this form of practice. When you do this, you are essentially practicing improvisation and composition. You are learning to play around with things, to take in ideas and then re-mix them using your own voice. Even if you have no interest in improvisation or composition, this form of practice will bring playfulness to your music.

And if you are interested in improvisation, it can be difficult to know how to practice it. Unlike learning a tune, it’s not clear exactly what you should do to practice it. A tune may be difficult, but at least you have instructions and a clear goal. Improvisation is an intimidating thing for a lot of people because they simply don’t know what to do.

The practice of reversal is great because it’s an easy-to-understand gateway to the process of improvisation. You are learning to systematically deconstruct a musical idea and then put it together again in a new way. Understanding this, you can find other ways to the same thing.

It’s my mission to make practice productive and the music fun for you. Always look for ways to do that.

PS: Here’s a song about this subject by my old group, 86 the Band.

Going backwards, backwards going…

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