Tag Archives: Practicing an Instrument

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

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.

 

 

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!