Pedal Power!

How can we ‘up our game’ with pedalling?

FOCUS: The Piano’s Sustained/Damper pedal (right pedal)

Pedal technique is something that requires consideration and careful decision making- where and how to apply it to the piano music.

What does the sustain pedal do?

The sustain pedal lifts the dampers off the strings so the strings vibrate until the pedal is released. When the sustain pedal is pressed down, all the notes on the piano resound after the keys have been released, for as long as the pedal is pressed down.

This pedal creates a smooth ‘legato’ effect, so the notes continue to ring on, overlapping with an echoing sound similar in effect to the sound you hear just after ringing a hand bell.

How can this pedal be used to good effect?

The sustain pedal can add this wonderful effect to music which, when properly controlled, can have a pleasing and additional effect other than one purely controlled by our hands on the keys.

Imagine you write a piece of music about a flowing river. You want to create a calm, rippling effect which blends nicely from note to note. Bringing in use of the sustain pedal adds a superb dimension to the composition.

Can it go wrong?

It is commonplace when first using the sustain pedal to abuse its use by becoming lazy with use of legato and ‘over-pedalling.’ I often use the term ‘Cathedral bells!’ when students press down on the sustain pedal and forget to lift their foot off again! Like pressing the acceleration pedal on a car continuously- not a decision you should make!

Imagine standing in a bell tower under numerous bells ringing loudly on and on and on at various pitches at once. This is exactly how NOT to pedal! Too much pedal entirely blurs precision and tonal clarity becomes lost. Not usually a desirable sound for any musician or listener.

How should I pedal?

Play some keys on the piano and meanwhile, using right foot, depress the sustain pedal gently. Listen to the sound. Keep playing the keys and lift off the pedal lightly and steadily without a sudden jerking movement. Listen to the effect of before, during and after the use of pedal.

Practise repeating this, really listening to the effect and noting the difference made by holding the pedal down for a shorter or longer duration. You want to have a good balance of sound. Think Goldilocks! Not too long, not too short, just right. Blending use of pedal and no use of pedal in a piece of music requires practise especially at the beginning when the movement and coordination is new (adding a third limb).

How do I know when to use the sustain?

In written piano music, you will often be given clear directions on when to use or refrain from using the sustain pedal. For example, below the image displays ‘ped’ (referring to press the sustain pedal down) and an asterisk (meaning release the sustain pedal at this point). Thus, we can see when we should use and not use the sustain pedal in this excerpt of music.

However, some music uses vague terminology such as ‘con ped’ to mean ‘with pedal.’ In these instances, you will need sufficient training to know how and where to apply the use of pedalling in the music.

Pedalling lessons give you opportunity to listen to, observe pedalling, practise using it and be given guidance on your own application. You will need to listen to your teacher demonstrate pedalling, learn to read pedal directions in written music and also compose using pedalling so that you are applying all knowledge to purposefully consider how and why pedalling can enhance certain passages. All these techniques help you study pedalling to a greater degree. If you have not yet got a piano teacher, please contact me today!

Claude Debussy (famous French Romantic composer) loved to use pedals in his piano music but hated the over-use of pedal. He made his feelings explicit about piano pedalling in this remark!

“….abusing the pedal is only a means of covering up a lack of technique, making a lot of noise to drown the music you’re slaughtering!” 

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

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