Here we go! Another one of Casey's ridiculously counter-intuitive posts. Start at the end. It doesn't get more contrarian than that, does it?
This is the way I was taught to practice, and I continue to do it because it works. Time and time again I share this practice technique with my students, and I can always tell when they follow my directions because their playing sounds smoother and more confident. Learn how and why starting at the end works so well. Don't worry, we won't be going backwards.
Working from the end, also known as back-chaining, is a great way for musicians, dancers, and other animals doing agility training to replicate long sequences of behaviors fluently. This is the secret to making it look easy! You begin by selecting the last bit of whatever you're doing (the last phrase, the last dance move, the punchline of the joke) and perfecting it. Then, you add a little bit more, chaining the two pieces together seamlessly. You continue this process until you've got the whole thing put together. Voila! You can now execute the whole routine from the beginning.
Take a minute and think about how awesome this is. Back-chaining allows you to program a behavior chain into your brain, where each action suggests the next one, and the material gets more familiar as you go through it instead of less. Repetition ad nauseum is unnecessary because you'll keep gently treading the same ground as you add new information.
Suppose you had to memorize all of the words to "Ode to Billie Joe" in order perform it onstage with only about two days' notice (it happened to me). In order to memorize the lyrics, most people are going to start at the beginning and proceed until the thing falls apart and they can't keep going, or they'll just start repeating the whole thing over and over start to finish in the hopes that some of it will sink in. Doing it this way, you will usually be fatigued by the third verse, before we even find out that there might have been a girl up there on the Tallahatchie Bridge throwing things off of it with Billie Joe. And of course, you'd be downright exhausted by verse four or five, having been concentrating with all your might for awhile by then.
Instead, recite the last line of the entire song: "And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge." Repeat it only as many times as it takes to get a Comfort Score of eight out of ten. Then you go, "And me, I spend a lot of time pickin' flowers up on Choctaw Ridge/And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge."
I am telling you, this works. For the record, I did, in fact, sing the whole thing onstage with the Boo Hoo Ramblers a couple days after hearing the song for probably the second time, without even bringing a cheat sheet up there with me. The entire thing was (and is still) programmed into my long-term memory.
If you're saying that you're not good at memorizing, then I ask you this: Can you recite the last word of the song? Okay, now can you put the last two words together? You're on your way! Best of all, this is a muscle that can improve if you keep working it out.
This back-chaining technique works well even if you're just trying to learn something without memorizing it. My favorite application, of course, is for learning a piece of classical music.
It's funny how my students fight me on this one. They will follow all of the practice procedures I recommend - except for working from the end. The reason for their discomfort with this strategy is also what gives it the greatest power: It separates the act of practicing from the act of playing.
Back-chaining makes you admit to yourself, "I can't just sit down and play this yet, so now I'll do the thing that is about as far away from that as I can get: playing the last phrase." It forces you to do the hard work instead of glossing over the tricky parts. It eliminates reliance on momentum as you pore over every note and fingering.
In the end (or, by the beginning), you'll be dancing across the whole thing anyway. Try it! Let me know how it goes.