Ukulele Lesson: Daniel Ward’s Backwards Method for Learning Songs


This is it. Stepping out onto the stage, you know this is no group sing-along. You are solo. Perhaps it’s a new arrangement by James Hill, a cool chord-melody arrangement from a recent workshop, or even a classical piece you’ve been working on. Whatever it is, you are about to play it in front of people, and you can feel your body chemistry change as you step up to the microphone.

It begins. Everything is going OK for a while until a voice enters your head and you get a sinking feeling a few bars before that spot that makes you think, “OMG … I hope this part doesn’t suck!” Here it comes. “Oh no…Oh no… it’s sucking! Bad!” The music is crashing, and you don’t know whether to start at the bad spot or just power through at this point. “Why can’t I get it right? I played it fine just ten minutes ago, and….”

Wait! Stop.

This has happened to so many of us, me included. Stage fright is one thing, but practicing mistakes right into your playing is downright lethal.

Think about this: Every time you learn a bit of music, you are making new neural pathways, connecting what will become the map that allows us to play the music physically on the ukulele. Your brain really doesn’t know the difference between a mistake and the right notes, so every time a mistake is made it takes about three to 20 times over again to redirect the pathway. Ouch!

If you make mistakes while practicing, they will stay with you all the way to the stage. They are stored in you. Playing  really slowly and carefully is one great way to help with this and is one of the most important habits to get into, but let’s take a look at another method that really works wonders—learning music backwards.


Well, not actually backwards, but learning music from the last phrase and then backing up, one phrase at a time. In this way, as you play forward, you are flowing into the phrases that you already know. The more you back up and practice, the more the end material solidifies. And in the process you get better—way better in a short amount of time. This eliminates most of the mistakes that come from playing forward into material you don’t know and stumbling over and over.

Once you learn a song this way, there’s an invisible tether that pulls you from the first note to the last with a new confidence that feels like rolling down through hills, and you already know the path. This kind of practice works with all music.

I wrote a short piece, in the easy key of C major and in re-entrant tuning, to look at this kind of practice in depth. Each measure is its own phrase, designed to show the way to better practice, one phrase at a time. This is an intermediate level composition, but I think most players will find it easy to learn with a little patience. It’s one of the first studies in my upcoming method book, Melodic Meditations for Ukulele. I am excited to be working on this group of companion studies to my Arpeggio Meditations for Ukulele and hope to have most of the compositions written before 2019.

Let’s play a game!

The first example contains the last four bars of the tune. Before you start with the final phrase, look at the helpful directions. Here you have music, chord boxes, and tablature, along with the very important fretting-hand fingerings that will guide you to the correct string and fingers. If you just read tab, that’s OK, too. Figuring out your fingerings will take a bit of matching the tab notes to the music notes above, but it will be worth every bit of your time. Becoming a master of just one phrase at a time is the key. When you are ready, back up one bar, and perfect the next, taking care to stitch each phrase end with the one before as you add them together.

Once you feel just a couple of phrases come together, the magic of this method will reveal its deep power. I also suggest just using your thumb to slowly pick through at first, and as you become more nimble, feel free to use any fingers you like. (The video lesson, above, will help you unpack this study as well.)


Where to find the examples demonstrated in the video:
Example 1     0:27
Example 2     2:50
Example 3     6:47
Example 4     10:12
Full song        14:17

Example 1 shows the last four measures of the piece. The “mini” barre on strings 1 and 2 for the C chord can be quickly let go of to hit the next notes on fret 5 and 7 if you need to. The squiggly line in front of a chord means to roll across the strings with your thumb.

daniel ward backwards lesson ex1

The next grouping here is the last eight bars of the song, which brings together two full four-bar phrases (Example 2). Note that the first two measures (using C and F chords) are exactly the same as the ones you already learned. You only have to pick up the last two bars here and you’ll know the entire ending of the song.

daniel ward backwards lesson ex2

‘B’ Here Now

Now go to the B section of the song, which is in the relative minor key of A minor.  Example 3 is just the last four bars of this section. The Bm7b5 might be a new chord for you, but if you go slowly and look at all the numbers, you’ll find it’s quite easy. Once again, paying close attention to your fretting fingers will make things easier. The stretch on the Dm7 chord might be a bit farther than your fourth finger is used to, but with a little push, it will make a beautiful sound.

daniel ward backwards lesson ex3

Now put the whole B section together, and add the final part of the study, too. As you can see in Example 4, there are some bars that are exactly the same. Play carefully and slowly through this entire section, and take care to get every measure right before connecting to the next. Then play the whole thing from the B part to the very end.

daniel ward backwards lesson ex4

Finally, take a look at the whole study. At first glance, things look very familiar! In fact, the whole first part of this piece is the last part—they are exactly the same. It’s an A–B–A form, and if you have practiced the material above, then you’ve already learned the whole piece.


daniel ward backwards lesson end game

Thank you for playing “End Game.”