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Six Virtues of Making Mistakes while Practicing Music 

Jason Didner has a good laugh after a mistake recording drums on his multitrack music projects. Practicing an instrument inherently means making mistakes - playing wrong notes, losing concentration, losing your place in the song or exercise. Now's a good time to look at our relationship with the errors we all make along the way. Let's tune in to the benefits we get from our miscues that happen in practice. 

1. This Mistake Wouldn't have Happened if I Weren't Practicing 

When you choose to sit passively on your couch watching TV or scrolling through social media, you're not exposing yourself to the risk of playing wrong notes. So, when you're actually practicing and missing the mark on a phrase, you can give yourself plenty of credit for choosing (and sticking with) an activity that brings some discomfort alongside its many rewards. 

2. This Mistake Happened in Practice, Not Onstage

Every mistake you make during practice reduces the likelihood of your making that same mistake onstage, especially if you concentrate on developing your ability to play that passage that's giving you trouble. Try repeatedly playing that part at a very slow tempo with a metronome, gradually increasing the tempo when you're playing it without much trouble. 

3. This Mistake is Training Me to Recover in Real Time

Eddie Van Halen called it “falling down the stairs and landing on your feet.” He also shared advice from his musician father who taught him if you make a mistake onstage, play it that way again with a smile. The audience will think your miscue was deliberate. 

My piano teacher in college taught me that recovering from a mistake is the real skill; not the expectation of never making mistakes. 

If you can get confident enough in what you're playing, you can move right on from a stumble with your heart and mind still emotionally connected to what you're playing now, rather than dwelling on a mistake from moments ago. 

Once you're past the point of trying to learn a piece and you're now rehearsing the performance of it, see how readily you can get back in the flow of what you're playing even when you've hit a clunker. Then you'll be much more resilient onstage. 

4. My Mistake May be Telling Me to Simplify

If your mistakes are consistently happening during a complicated passage of a song leading up to a live performance or group recording session, this is valuable information that you're pursing something too difficult musically for the moment you're preparing for. If you're vocally straining at high notes, this may be a cue to lower the song's key. If you're working on an elaborate drum fill or ultra shredding guitar part and you're struggling with a challenging passage, see how you can simplify it for your upcoming gig. Then after the show you can gradually increase the difficulty level - at a slow tempo - with a metronome. 

5. My Bandmate's Mistake can Help Us Clear Up a Musical Misunderstanding in Practice

If you're practicing in a group, do you notice a consistent pattern of wrong notes from a bandmate? Is it the same mistake in the same spot in the 1st and 2nd verse? This is a good opportunity to pause the song, go to that trouble spot and loop through it as a band to bring clarity to the whole group's understanding of the song. 

Be kind and constructive when pointing out the error. Looping through a short passage surrounding the error should make it clear to all that you're interested in having everyone play the right part, not in belittling your bandmate.  

6. My Mistake is an Ideal Object for Compassion

As a user of the Ten Percent Happier meditation app, I've gotten lots of personal development out of compassion practice - where we wish health and happiness for ourselves, those close to us and ultimately all beings. This practice grows the parts of our brains that strive to make life better for ourselves and those around us. 

In that regard, approaching practice with a compassionate mindset can really add to the joy of practicing music. When we treat mistakes - our own or a bandmate's - with compassion, we better accept the inevitability of  errors along the way toward developing a compelling musical act. 

We've examined here the ways in which mistakes serve as markers of the effort you're making, valuable information about the need to simplify, an occasion for compassion toward yourself and others, and a situation to develop resilience to recover onstage. Talk to me in the comments below about your relationship with your musical practice and the mistakes that come with it. 


My Guitar Gear Gets an Update 

Changes to my musical gear are often inspired by changing gig circumstances, including my mode of transportation. Over the past week this has again been the case. 

Recently I got the opportunity to assemble a band to perform at Millburn Rocktoberfest on September 9. I got inspired with having a live band perform songs that I've only been able to perform solo acoustic or record all the band parts one at a time. I also had to face the reality that my musical gear would need to shrink to fit my downsized vehicle and my bandmates' small cars. 

See, my other band, the Jungle Gym Jam, played the majority of its gigs when I had a minivan and could haul everything we needed to a gig. In the pre-COVID era there were plenty of gigs - about 50 per year - certainly enough for the big vehicle to be worth it. 

Then came the pandemic and with it, only virtual gigs. Then came Vladimir Putin's Russian invasion of Ukraine. It became immediately apparent to me that continuing to burn large amounts of gas, mostly to commute alone to/from work, would continue to fund autocrats and waste my money, I decided to go for a plug-in hybrid car, the Prius Prime. 

A Smaller, but Still Very Effective Amp

My previous guitar amp, a Blackstar HT-120, took up the entire hatch of the smaller car, though it offered an absolutely glorious guitar tone that I loved. With the new gig coming up, I decided to make my move and trade in the big Blackstar amp for a much smaller (but still loud and clear) Orange Super Crush 100 combo (pictured below). This transaction took place at Sam Ash in Springfield, NJ. 

This amp only takes up half of my hatch, making much-needed room for my accessories and the merchandise I sell at my shows. The clean channel offers great clarity and definition. The dirty channel can provide anything from a classic rock overdrive to full-blown metal distortion. I auditioned the amp by playing the original songs I'm preparing with the band for Rocktoberfest, and was plenty pleased with the sounds I got out of it. 

The Incredible Shrinking Bass Amp

Just as I parted with a larger guitar amp whose tone I loved in favor of a smaller one with a pleasing sound, I needed to make a similar move with the bass rig. Amelia, our bassist, lives in the city and borrows a small car when she comes out to NJ. She was never able to fit my Hartke HD 150 in the car, so I'd put it in the minivan and we'd have what we need. Lately we all have small cars; none of us could fit it if we're carrying anything else, so I downsized that as well. 

The new bass amp is significantly smaller, shockingly light weight and throws plenty of bass sound. It's the Fender Rumble 100. One night I played my bass through it with my looper pedal. Once the loop played back I hopped over to my guitar and jammed along with my bass part still playing through that amp. I was delighted with how the two amps sounded together. 

Pedal, Pedal, Pedal!

The previous Blackstar amp had 3 channels - one clean and two dirty. I could have an overdriven rhythm guitar sound and another slightly louder lead guitar sound. I had to work out a similar solution for the new amp, which features one dirty channel, not two. Jeff at Sam Ash suggested a signal boost pedal I could stomp on to quickly raise my volume from dirty rhythm guitar level to lead guitar level when I have a solo to play. 

The need for another pedal called my attention to an issue with my old setup. I'd place my amp footswitch and my tuner pedal on the floor and they'd sort of drift around over the course of a rehearsal or performance. The addition of another pedal led me to think of a more stable solution - a pedal board. 

I chose the Pedal Train Classic Jr., a moderately-sized, slanted aluminum pedal board, which comes in a carrying case. 

As long as I was making the move to a pedal board, I added a Roland Super Chorus CH-1 pedal, which adds terrific richness to a clean guitar tone. I love how my “Salt and Sand” guitar accompaniment comes out with the pedal on. 

I tried playing with my Vox wah-wah pedal on the board, but quickly found it physically awkward to work that pedal while it's on an upward slant. It reminded me of when I played on a stage built on a hill where I was flexing my calves for the entire show! So when I use the wah, it will be on the floor to the right of the pedal board. Bonus: that leaves more room on the board for other pedals anyway! And I'm much more comfortable working the wah with it flat on the floor. 

Jeff wisely suggested mounting my wireless receiver to the pedal board, which will make my gig setups quicker and easier. 

The Orange amp footswitch is mounted to the board for quick changes between the clean and dirty channel. I placed it next to the booster pedal so I can quickly stomp both pedals when switching from clean to lead. 

On the pedal's upper-right corner you'll see my tuner pedal, the TC Electronics PolyTune 2. This pedal can allow for quick silent tune-ups one string at a time but you can also sound all the strings at once and have the pedal indicate to you which strings are in tune and which are not. I could use a bit of practice with this mode, but I can see that as a convenient way to quickly check tuning between songs. What I like best about this pedal is its very bright display which is most helpful when performing outdoors in strong daylight. 

More Power To You 

The addition of more pedals brought about the need to consider powering those pedals. When I was taking just the tuner (and sometimes the wah) to gigs, I could just put fresh batteries in the pedals and not worry about a power supply. But adding more pedals, especially the boost pedal, brought new considerations. The boost pedal does not take a battery. And individual power adapters for every pedal is not practical, especially since each has a large AC/DC converter at the plug (affectionately known as a “wall wart.” Try plugging all those individual wall warts into a multi-outlet strip! 

So I invested in a MXR Mini Iso-Brick power supply. This little device, smaller than a cell phone, has only one wall wart and powers up to 5 pedals. The important thing about it is that it provides isolated power to each pedal. There are other options, like running a daisy chain of power from one pedal to the next, in succession, but this solution tends to add unwanted noise to the audio signal. I've experienced the purity of the sound when the pedals are connected to the Iso-Brick Mini. 

Using Velcro (which came with the pedal board) I mount the brick under the pedal board and run power cables to those pedals that require power. 

At the time of this writing, one of the five outputs is failing to provide power (and its corresponding blue lamp does not light, confirming an issue), so I'm bringing it back to Sam Ash for an exchange; I'll keep you posted how that turns out. 

Improvements in the Works

In the above photo you'll notice some crowding issues where I only had straight ¼" cable plugs, like the one coming out of the Orange footswitch or the left side of the wah-wah pedal. I've just received replacement cables with right-angle plugs, which should go a long way toward neatening the board. 

Also, I'm considering adding an overdrive pedal, like perhaps the iconic Ibanez Tube Screamer, for the purpose of using my looper pedal, which is very useful for practicing leads over a just-recorded rhythm guitar part. I also like the looper for creating short videos. 

The problem with the looper is that when I play a lead over a rhythm part through my amp now through its dirty channel, it lacks clarity in both the lead and the rhythm. And if the amp is providing all the distortion after the looper, you can't make the looped part clean and the lead distorted. That could be achieved if you add an overdrive pedal to the signal chain before the looper. Look for updates on an overdrive pedal… 

My Go-to Electric Guitar

For the past 11 years my go-to electric guitar has been a PRS SE Custom 24. I installed Schaller locking tuners when I first got this axe. It's served me well in bandshells, at the Stone Pony, on the Coney Island boardwalk and in the home studio. I'm convinced this guitar immediately made me a better player; I'm still enjoying finding new licks with it. I'm considering upgrading the pickups, as I'm still using the stock pickups that came with it. 

Are you a gear-head? what kind of musical gear are you most excited about? Let's geek out about it in the comments below.