Chaining and Back-Chaining

It is a mistake to look too far ahead. Only one link in the chain of destiny can be handled at a time.  ~Winston Churchill

Whenever I hear the Concerto for Trumpet in Ebby Johann Nepomuk Hummel I have this flashback: I’m once again in high school, about to perform the  Concerto (on a Bb trumpet). It’s an ambitious piece for any trumpet player, let alone a high schooler; let alone a kid from rural Alaska who has had no lessons. I’m nervous, of course, but I’ve practiced (or so I think), I’ve worked with my excellent accompanist a few times. I’ve never performed it before but I don’t give this much thought because I’m too nervous. I sit in the warm-up room and practice a little before I go on. That’s not true. I practice a LOT. It’s becoming clear to me–much too late–that I don’t really know this piece. I work the sections that are difficult (there are a lot) and begin to get tired. My chops are getting tender. I stop practicing and go perform with a feeling of trepidation in my gut. It’s an experience I cringe about today and sigh in relief that it’s in my past and I learned from it.

It was the single most disastrous solo performance of my then-short life, and it remains so nearly 30 years and many more performances later. The beginning of the concerto had been excellent (after all, it’s only piano in the beginning), and then I came in and played relatively well for the first page or so. As the piece progressed, however, my playing began to get worse and worse and worse until the whole thing broke down and I limped to the end of the first movement. I’d planned to do the other movements, too, but the judge (thankfully!) stopped me. It was that bad. He did have some nice words for my accompanist, Peggy Brandt. Ouch.

It’s common for the beginning of a piece to be strong and the end to be weak. I’ve heard it SO often in my own students and in my experience as a judge, and that painful reminder of my own helps keep the issue in my awareness. Strong beginnings and weak endings are a result of a common practice behavior among beginners: always starting to practice from the beginning. Many inexperienced players take the “start-at-the-beginning/Pete-and-repeat” approach. This isn’t a very effective method and I learned that the hard way. Back then I didn’t know any better but I sure wish I’d taken lessons or had a good book to help me out. Don’t simply start at the beginning and try to pummel your way to the end. Be smarter about your practice.

Today, I use many practice techniques and I’m always learning more. The technique I’d like to mention today is back-chaining. But before I get into this, I’d like to remind you that your first order of business with a new piece is to go through it and identify the problem sections: those phrases or short sections that are going to give you a lot of trouble. Spend time on them first. Then you’re ready for back-chaining.

The topic of chaining and back-chaining are covered in more detail in The Practice of Practice and Practice Like This.

Back-chaining is a variation of chaining, which is taking a short section of your piece–as much as several phrases or as little as a few notes–learning the section, then adding the next phrase or section which slightly overlaps the first. These phrases are links in the chain of the entire piece. However, if you use chaining and start at the beginning of a piece, you’re still apt to fall into the trap I mentioned earlier and end up with a strong beginning and a weak ending. Instead, use back-chaining.

Start from the final phrase of the tune you’re working on, learn it, then back up by one phrase and play/practice from that phrase through to the end of the piece. Continue until the whole song can be played. If you practice like this, you’ll end up with a strong, confident finish. Feeling confident at the end of a piece is important because it’s at the end of a piece that we’re most tired and most likely to let our concentration lag. If you make the end of the piece the section that’s been practiced the most, this is much less likely. Try it!

Here’s the final movement of the Hummel Concerto for Trumpet in Eb–the up-tempo Rondo–performed wonderfully by the amazing young trumpetess Alison Balsom. Have fun and good luck with your practice.


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