How to Practice Guitar 101: The Million Pound Challenge!
Winning the "Million Pound Challenge" is easy; so easy a beginner can do it! Oh ... and in the over ten years since I devised it not one of my students has managed to win it yet!
Roll up Roll up!
Here's the deal, I give you a comprehensive but simple set of instructions to play a small piece of music (a single bar or less) mechanically correctly. The challenge is to follow the instructions to the letter five times through, taking as long as you need to get it right. If you manage it you win the notional (I'm not that rich) million pounds in my freshly opened imaginary briefcase.
Let's take an example. These 2 beats form the foundation of my favourite tale to tell about this challenge. To win the challenge you have to follow every instruction correctly, including the foot tap (written underneath - red for down foot blue for up foot) and the count (also written underneath), to be spoken out loud.
Today's "Million Pound Challenge".
We begin by placing fingers 3 and 2 as shown, on the 7th fret of the D string and the 6th fret of the G string respectively. They can stay there throughout.
Breaking it Down
There are four separate steps to play the full two beats, each having multiple requirements to be executed simultaneously. You're allowed to pause for as long as you like before executing any of the steps so you can visualise the requirements before proceeding.
- Tap your foot.
- Say "One" out loud.
- Pick up on the D string held down at fret 7 by finger 3.
- Lift your foot.
- Say "and" out loud.
- Place your 4th finger at fret 7 of the G string.
- Pick down on the G string now held down at fret 7 by finger 4.
- Tap your foot.
- Say "Two" out loud.
- Lift your 4th finger from fret 7 of the G string.
- Pick up on the G string now held down at fret 6 by finger 2.
- Lift your foot.
- Say "and" out loud.
Anything there you can't do? Thought not. How about doing it correctly five times through? The only real demand on you lies in over-riding the desire to see this as "music" and instead disciplining yourself to slow right down and even stop if necessary so that you get everything correct every time. That's how to practice guitar to program yourself to make things easy enough that they soon become music!
A Cautionary Tale
Here's the story behind that pattern. I first used it in a lesson in about 2014. An older student (a guitarist of over 30 years and an academic professional of well above average intelligence) was seen to be having problems playing "across the bar" ie. keeping a note ringing from one bar of music into the first beat of the next bar. I figured a familiar and basic representative example we might use to work on this issue would be the theme from Status Quo's "Caroline".
Although he knew the main lead line and could hazard a recognisable rendition of it, when it was put to the test along with a backing track its timing fell sadly apart. In looking to help him build up to playing that full part correctly I wrote out and presented to him the half-bar pattern shown above. He couldn't keep it locked in with a backing so there was work to be done!
First we made sure he fully understood every detail of what was shown and then set him to attempt the "Million Pound Challenge". It certainly wasn't his first, but he had yet to win one.
Fifteen minutes later we were still awaiting even a single correct run through, both of us suffering his regular and widely varying deviations from the instructions on the sheet. Two perceptual problems seemed to be blocking the path to success:
1) A need to view the instructions laid out in front of him as "music". Despite my repeated suggestion that he slow down, and stop if necessary to ensure he got things right, he'd set his foot going far too fast and try to keep up with it. The "trick" is to forget this has anything to do with music and focus purely on the mechanics. How long it takes to get through things correctly is immaterial.
2) Frustration arising from a preconception that, being a Status Quo "3 chord trick" A, D, E number, this must be easy. Of course nothing on guitar (or in life) is easy until you can do it right every time or, as the saying goes, "until you can't do it wrong!"
Ultimately everyone needs to work things out for themselves so I said I would bow out of commenting further and just leave him to it. I would however keep a tally chart of every failed attempt.
Come Mr. Tallyman.
Another 15 minutes and almost 70 failed attempts later he looked up and said, "I think I know what you're saying now." His eyes returned to the instruction sheet and what followed comprised one of the most painfully deliberate, teeth grinding, "steam from the ears" attacks on a piece of music I've had the pleasure to witness.
It took him about three more minutes to get through the 2 beats five times correctly but get through he did. By the end a big smile was present ... but on my face not his! He was just relieved; and frazzled after some of the hardest learning I'd put him through.
After a quick breather and a pat on the back I said "Right, now you understand it!". It was time to put things to the test. I started up a plain "A major" backing track on the computer and he began playing his new party piece at 30bpm. Hallelujah it worked!
Every time he got to repeating it comfortably I added 5bpm to the speed of the backing. The "magic" kicked in at about 80bpm and it was clear that he'd now bypassed the programming process and was now playing the pattern freely as music. We eventually made it to over 170bpm, somewhat above the speed of the original, before the wheels finally flew off.
The Bottom Line
If the mechanics aren't correct the music can't be right. Here, we were dealing with mental rather than physical mechanics but the principle applies just the same.
This may look like a slow method to get the music into your head. It's actually the fastest by a country mile! The slow method is to passively hope things take shape like my student in the above tale which ended up costing him years of frustration! With the million pound challenge and Taplature we take action to ensure that our problems on guitar are expediently dispatched!
Try the Million Pound Challenge with the music you find mentally tough. Break it down and focus right in on the hardest parts, in tiny sections like we've seen today if necessary. Often merely the act of writing problem parts out in Taplature form can offer a breakthrough.
Translating your bugbears into Taplature and executing them completely robotically with a correct foot tap and an out loud count offers the highest level of practice for mental issues and offers the straightest and quickest route to success (although it may not feel like it on those first runs through!).
The "Magic Glue" of Taplature
What we're doing here is literally "programming" ourselves to play guitar correctly. Completing the Million Pound Challenge for any problematic piece of music ensures that everything is in the right place to now begin getting easier, fast! We're applying the "glue" that holds our playing together even in high-pressure situations.
Watch out for the "magic" after a certain number of perfectly correct repetitions when things start moving from the methodical and plodding left side of the brain where we do the programming, into the free and musical right side. I can always hear when a student hits this point, and they can feel it too, often to the point that the excitement of that realisation distracts them so much that the conscious brain then kicks back in and things fall apart for a short while! No problem; the next time we try it the "glue" of their programming has always hardened and we can push on further!
There was no real reason my student couldn't have won the Million Pound Challenge in his first 3 minutes of trying. Of course he could have theoretically done the same over 30 years prior which would have saved him carrying this piece of baggage his whole guitar playing life!
"You know", I said as our hero left me that morning, "I could have got a beginner doing that in 5 minutes". A wry grin was the reply but a fundamental lesson on how to practice guitar had undoubtedly been learned.
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Prohibitively difficult unless approached correctly
You too can make this tricky skill look easy!