Category Archives: Music Practice

Practice Strategies

Learning how to play the pedal steel guitar can be fun, rewarding, and worthwhile. The process of learning, and the challenges involved with this intricate instrument, are part the journey. Using strategies that can make practicing more efficient and beneficial, a player can improve their playing with enjoyable outcomes.

Here are some practice strategies that I have found useful when learning this instrument:

Chunking

There is so much involved with learning to play music and an instrument that it can feel like climbing a mountain…but mountains are climbed one step at a time. The same idea can be applied to practicing pedal steel. Breaking down the material and techniques that need to be learned into “chunks” can provide more focus to attain important goals.

If a player’s goal is to spend a little time each day working on technique, scales, and tunes, then finding a good exercise to work on for each of these categories is important. There are multiple aspects of technique that are important to learn, plenty of scales, and thousands of tunes. It can feel overwhelming to think about how much there is to learn, so choosing one area out of each category to focus on for practice sessions can provide direction, focus, and the time necessary to truly learn: after all, the key to learning is repetition.

Practicing Pedal Steel and Rediscovering Songs

I recommend choosing an exercise for each category and working on it for a few weeks before moving on to the next goal. For technique, this may mean focusing on bar control by doing a 15 minute exercise centered around this each day. For scales, working on the major scale and the Mixolydian scale each practice session may be more beneficial than trying to learn every scale/mode at once. For tunes, working on the verse over and over again until you have it down may be more beneficial than noodling between every section without truly getting them down.

After three weeks of practicing one particular thing each day, a player will see significant gains in that area. This is a good time to move on to another exercise, and begin building a new foundation. These foundations can provide good leverage for climbing the pedal steel mountain.

Consistency

The more a player can successfully complete their playing objective (i.e. hitting a right note, or playing a lick accurately up-to-speed) the easier it will be to repeat this. So when practicing it is important to try to repeat successful results more often than unsuccessful ones.

If a player completes a picking exercise successfully three out of four times, then they are building a habit of playing it accurately more often than not. Doing this more and more often, until it can be done successfully 9 out of 10 times, will build consistency of success.

If they are only completing it successfully one out of five times, then they may find it beneficial to alter their practice routine so that more successes can be made more of the time. This may mean slowing the metronome down a bit until one can play it successfully more often, then speed it up slowly until the same can be done at the next speed.

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Once a player can successfully repeat something over and over again accurately, it is a good time to move on to something more challenging and push for growth instead of being stagnant. If a player can’t repeat something successfully more often than not, then it is a good time to change some variables to make it easier to. After all, you have to crawl before you can walk.

Timing

It is important to practice smart, not harder. A player may be able to make just as many gains from practicing efficiently for 10 minutes, than inefficiently for 2 hours. During your practice session, ask yourself: am I focused enough right now to truly be productive on the task at hand? If not, is it because your fingers are tired, or are you distracted by your friend’s text messages, or maybe you’re hungry cause you haven’t eaten yet today?

Know your limits, and if you begin making more mistakes than earlier in the practice session, then it may be a good idea to take a break. (Mistakes are OK!, but just make sure you aren’t making more of them because your practice session has lost its steam.) When you notice you need a break, here are some things that can help refresh you: go for a walk, do a quick stretch, eat a granola bar, listen to a couple of inspiring songs, or maybe just take some deep breaths. Effective practice builds good playing habits, and getting in the habit of practicing effectively is making the best of both worlds.


Remember that practicing and learning requires making mistakes, so make the most of learning from them and have fun! Understanding how to practice effectively, and how to improve one’s playing, can be rewarding and can yield significant gains. Using these strategies can give a player more ideas on how to do this.

For more practice strategies click below:

Practicing Pedal Steel Guitar

Metronome Ideas and Tricks

Having a strong foundation in rhythm can help a pedal steel player’s musicality. Using a metronome is one of the best ways to build a player’s rhythmic skills, and can go a long ways on and off the bandstand.

Here are some ideas and tips for practicing with a metronome…

-Speeds

Most of my practice with a metronome involves using it at a slow tempo. This allows me to really calibrate my attack on the strings with the beats of the metronome.  I am usually in the 55-75 BPM range, often in the 60’s.  By calibrating my attack, what I mean is I try to hear sonically if I’m slightly ahead of the beat, right on top of it, or playing behind it.

These three modes of attack can allow one to have more options rhythmically when playing with others. Playing ahead of the beat, without rushing it, can help drive certain parts of songs and give them more flare.  Playing on top of the beat is more common, and entails playing on time with the music surrounding you — you’ll be in time without accentuating the time too much and drawing attention away from the lyrics or song. Playing behind the beat can be fun too, and add more tail end to the percussive attacks of other instruments, without losing timing.  When doing this, your attack on the strings will very minutely follow the immediate sound of the beat.

WatchHands

-On 2+4

This is a good trick for working on your timing, and can help when learning jazz rhythms too.  Set your metronome real slow (I usually set it between 40 and 60 BPM).  Then allow the beats you hear on the metronome to act as beats 2 and 4 of the measure (4/4 meter), and beats 1 and 3 will be in between these and inaudible on the metronome.  Basically, you are using the metronome only for beats 2 and 4, while allowing your brain and mind to hear and interpret beats 1 and 3 on your own. When you do this, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of when the snare drum usually hits, and you’ll be able to accentuate beats 2 and 4 more within your playing. Having to fill in 1 and 3 on your own will give you practice and understanding of the function of these beats too.  After all, you are the one “making” these beats happen in your mind. For more practice ideas and exercises, switch it up: have the metronome only sound beats for 1 and 3, while you interpret 2 and 4 on your own.

ClockFace

-Get a good timbre

Finding a nice, pleasant sounding metronome is important for getting the most out of your practice. After all, who wants to continuously listen to a repeating noise that is annoying sounding It’s like playing with a drummer: it is much more enjoyable to play with one that sounds good, than one that doesn’t, ha!?

I recommend downloading multiple metronome apps that are free on your phone, then experimenting with them to see which one sounds best to you. Also, I recommend the app called DrumGenius. It has a great selection of drum loops in many music styles, which all sound great. It is a great way to practice rhythm, while adding a more realistic aspect to your session – with a good sound system it can feel like you are practicing with a drummer. This can really help when you get on the bandstand.

-Using with a drone

When practicing scales, intervals, arpeggios, etc. it is often very beneficial to have a drone track in the background. Try to use a metronome when practicing with a drone, as this will be beneficial in many ways: improving intonation, solidifying your timing, training your ears, making your practice more musical, etc. For more on practicing with a drone, check out these articles:

Practicing Music with Drones

Creating Your Own Drone Track


I hope these tips and ideas on using a metronome help players get more out of their practice time. Often, the best way to calibrate one’s timing on and off the instrument is to practice with a metronome.

For more practice ideas check out this page!!!

Pedal Steel Chops

I once told another musician, who is a great horn player, that I needed to practice a few days to get back my “chops” on the pedal steel.  He was surprised, saying “I didn’t know pedal steel players had to keep up their chops!”

After taking a little break from playing, I knew that I had to regain my physical dexterity and coordination on my instrument…just as a horn player must or they’ll lose their “chops,” especially regarding the strength and dexterity of their lips.  After all, if you are training for a marathon, then take a month off, you can’t expect to resume your training with the same intensity.  You must regain it with a little practice; just as a motorcycle that has been sitting in a garage for years may need a little more revving of the engine than normal to get going.

As pedal steel players, there are various aspects of our technique that can get rusty with too much time away from the seat.  These include: right hand blocking and picking, bar control, foot pedal usage, volume pedal control, and chord/note patterns and positions.

So if you take a break from playing, don’t expect to just hop into a song with technical ease (although sometimes things just naturally flow and you get lucky).  Do yourself a favor and warm-up with certain technical exercises, and then play music.  You may just find that rebuilding your chops will lead to more musical freedom, and free up your body and mind to conquer new musical territory.

After all, whether horn players know it or not, the pedal steel is a very physical instrument and demands practice to keep sharp on it!

Visit the Technique section to learn more about chop-building and various physical aspects of learning and playing pedal steel.

 

 

Rediscovering Emotion in Music

Learning new songs is always a great way to improve your musical knowledge. A better understanding of harmony, melody, song structure, and much more can be utilized by hashing through a tune. However, can studying a tune reveal certain personal characteristics of your playing and the emotions that are attached to it? Absolutely, especially if you are rediscovering a song you enjoyed from a pivotal moment in your life: your late adolescence to early adulthood.

Research in psychology and neuroscience indicate a definite connection between music and memories. But did you know that it also indicates that the music we listen to in our late adolescence and early adulthood holds a stronger power over our emotions than music at other points in our lives? This “nostalgia” may seem like common sense, but what’s interesting is that this emotional connection to the music of these years does not weaken as we age.

It seems that reminiscing about music from these years can bring up autobiographical memories, and reveal a personal emotional power to this music. So as a musician, I can’t help but ask: what does this mean for my instrument and I now?

Practicing Pedal Steel and Rediscovering Songs

I recently started re-listening to many tunes from my late teens and early 20’s, and I undoubtedly feel a deep emotional connection to this music. Memories come flooding back, with occasional goosebumps popping up for notes and sounds that really hit home, or touch my soul. I can’t help but begin singing along to many of these songs, realizing that since I’ve listened to them so many times in my life, I can sing the melody almost perfectly without having to consult sheet music or really listen and study the tune. Basically, I’m realizing that I’ve had many of these songs aurally memorized; they have left a deep imprint on my brain and unconscious. Even though I had never studied these songs musically (I didn’t know the chord changes, the key, the notes of the melody, etc.), I know them in and out – in my mind and heart. What a great tool and aid when practicing my instrument!

Normally, learning a new song requires one to listen to it, examine it, and study it multiple times until it is memorized…this requires practice and time, like learning anything new. However, half the battle has already been won for these tunes from our personal past, as our ears and brain know them deeply. In lieu of this, I decided to start learning some of these songs on my pedal steel, seeing what would come out of it.

I was quickly amazed at how much easier it was to learn a song that I had listened to many times during these years in my life. The melodies are easier to sing and find on the steel, and the chord changes seem harmoniously entwined to my fingers and mind. The rhythms were already close to my heart, as they had been beating on in my body for years just like my heart. The greatest aspect of learning these tunes that I love and cherish: emotions come pouring into the notes and sounds I make on the steel – more easily than ever.

So not only was it increasing my knowledge and understanding of harmony, melodic elements, and rhythmic qualities, I didn’t have to pull up my audio player and listen to the song multiple times like I sometimes do when learning a tune I’ve never heard before. One or two times of listening was plenty… the music was all in my head, memorized by my past self, and full of emotion! Best of all, it was fun learning songs from my past and rediscovering why I loved them then, and still do now (most of them anyways!).

How This Helps From a Practicing Standpoint…

So I’ve begun revisiting and learning songs from my late teens to early 20’s, and I’m finding that they’re really improving my steel playing. Singing the melodies that are ingrained in my mind, and finding these notes on the pedal steel, has been a great way to transcribe and improve the ears. These melodies are easier to translate from my mind to my fingers than many others.

Finding the chords and harmony that underlay these melodies almost seems second nature thanks to the amazing human brain, and I now have a deeper understanding of harmony on a theoretical level and emotional one too. Oh, that’s why that part of the song sounds so cool — they are using changes that really flow well together — no wonder why I always liked this song! I can now use this harmony knowledge for writing and composing my own tunes!

And the rhythmic aspects, the pulse, the beat — these came flowing out onto the steel — no metronome required. They were all in my head and memories. I am quickly able to groove on these tunes, knowing how the rhythm flows, feels, and relates to the music and its other elements.

For example, I recently listened to Led Zeppelin’s song “Your Time is Gonna Come”, one that I hadn’t heard since literally being in high school. I was amazed at how much I knew about this song without really knowing it, and after not hearing it for so long. You see back then, I had listened to it many times, and soaked it up with my heart and mind.

I could instantly sing the melody, I could hear Jimmy Page’s guitar parts crystal clear, and I was even surprised to hear a lot of pedal steel on the track — I didn’t even know what a pedal steel was back then! And what a cool organ intro!!

Led Zeppelin Pedal Steel - Your Time is Gonna Come

I then went to the steel’s C6 neck and translated Page’s acoustic guitar part to it. After a few short practice sessions, I could play his rhythm parts on pedal steel – sweet! Best of all, I could get away with singing some of Robert Plant’s vocals while playing the rhythm on pedal steel. And Page’s pedal steel playing – I could hear and identify those parts on the E9 neck just from listening.

On a basic level, I learned the melody of the song, the chord changes, and supplemental parts quicker than ever, and now I could jam some Zeppelin with other musicians if I wanted to! Heck, I could even play Page’s guitar part so that an electric guitar player could branch out and try some new stuff — maybe they could play the pedal steel parts on the song, which would make this a complete instrument role reversal. I love how versatile the pedal steel guitar is.

So next time you’re firing up a tune before practicing, consider revisiting some of those sentimental ones from years past, and you’ll be amazed at not only how much easier these songs are to learn, but also the emotional qualities you’ll be able to pull out of them. Your pedal steel playing will be that much more soulful, and your heart and mind will thank you too. What a great way to rediscover your past, and make something with it now!


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Using a Growth Mindset to Improve on your Instrument

Practicing an instrument can be challenging, frustrating, and tough; especially in the early stages when our muscle memory hasn’t matured, and our physical dexterity is developing. This shouldn’t be discouraging though, and it should definitely not make you want to practice less!

If anything, we can use the learning process and scientific insights to improve quicker on the instrument, and get more out of our practice. Here’s how understanding your mindset can make practicing more enjoyable…

Use a Growth Mindset instead of a Fixed Mindset

When I first started practicing my instrument, I would avoid challenging myself, mostly because I felt more comfortable playing whatever I could play at the time. This wasn’t by choice, but rather I was doing it unconsciously. I didn’t really know how to seriously practice, or improve on my instrument! I thought that because I was sitting down at my instrument and playing, I was practicing.

Nowadays, if I were to do this, I would consider this as noodling – or just jamming around my instrument doing whatever feels good. Don’t get me wrong, there are benefits to noodling around and discovering new things and ideas…but as with most things, it is better done in moderation.

One can counteract the urge to noodle, by establishing goals and specific challenges that are part of the overall mission. More scientifically put, you can learn to use a growth mindset when practicing.

A growth mindset approaches a learning task knowing that perfection isn’t achieved overnight, or possibly ever for that matter, as we are human. So it establishes specific goals that are more reachable within a certain timeframe and limit, and asks us to push ourselves and do our best to achieve these. The growth mindset cultivates resilience, perseverance, and hard work – even if it’s just five minutes of hard work.

There's always room for improvement with pedal steel!
Billy Knowles’ hard work on restoring a ’96 Emmons LeGrande II – Strayhorn Era

For example, if you know you only have ten minutes to spend practicing a song you’ve been working on, it’d be more beneficial to understand: that you have ten minutes to challenge yourself and improve a little bit on the song (growth mindset), instead of thinking you’ll never be able to perfect this song in the next ten minutes because you don’t have the intelligence or talent (fixed mindset). With the growth mindset, you leave yourself room for hits, misses, and improvements, like a dart player during target practice – you learn quickly and efficiently from your mistakes. With the fixed mindset, you tell yourself that since you can’t hit the bull’s-eye now, you probably never will be able to. You get discouraged, and don’t leave yourself room for improvement, even if it is just for ten minutes. You are more likely to give up.

I learned of this idea, which was truly enlightening to me, through a book written by a Stanford University psychologist named Carol Dweck. She spent many years researching successful athletes, CEOs, teachers, and many others to better understand what made them perform better in the long run — they weren’t just born with it, they had to develop it.

Many professional athletes and champions understand this part of the learning process on a deep level. They work everyday on the tiny kinks in their armor, until one day they’ve spent so much time on the fine details and understanding/perceiving them that they have “perfected” it. At least it appears that they’ve perfected it, but the champion knows that they’re just getting started and there’s always room for improvement!

Rider A Dog - He Loves The Sun
Embrace the learning process!

So embrace this room for improvement, actually get a kick out of it! Challenge yourself and grow. Lace up, gear up, or whatever – be a warrior on your instrument and pick your battles wisely!

Don’t just play the same riffs, licks, or scales over and over again, study and foster them through challenging experiments and trials. Be a mad scientist with experiments that you know will often fail!

Grow something from the ground up with your practice tribulations, and be sure to water it every once in a while. It may just blossom into something no one’s ever seen before!


The book mentioned in this article is called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (affiliate link).  The idea of mindset, and how we can better enjoy the challenges of learning, has been really helpful to me as a musician. It has allowed me to get more enjoyment out of practicing my instrument. It has also helped me become more patient in the learning process, and understand that – like life – sometimes you just need to take things one step at a time!


Check out the practice section for more ideas on practicing and improving on your instrument.

BALANCING TECHNIQUE, SCALES, & SONGS DURING PRACTICE

What to practice?  Well, there are a lot of variables that can go into this: music genre/type, upcoming gigs, transcribing, goals, etc.

Practice or Recording Station for Pedal Steel

Let’s say we’ve got the whole day or week ahead of us, and we have a lot of time to woodshed on our instrument or the pedal steel.  Let’s make the most of it.  A lot of great jazz improvisers, and great musicians, recommend treating your practice day as three-fold:

Spend the first-third of time on: technique.  (picking exercises, bar control, bar slides, pedal control, different grips, volume pedal use, etc.)

Spend the second-third of time on:  scales.  (Modes, patterns, runs, exercises, etc.)

Spend the third-third of time on: songs.  (Upcoming gigs, Emmons tunes, jazz chord-melodies, classic/traditional country tunes, etc.)

This should ensure you’re working on the multiple disciplines necessary to become a better musician and steel player.  Plus, by the time you’ve knocked out technique and scales, you feel very warmed-up and ready to tackle those tunes (which are usually more fun to practice anyways –save the best for last!

Bun Bun - Bunny in Deep Forest

To check out some books and literature that have helped me become a better human, musician, and practice more efficiently – Click Here!