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.