Pedalling

© Richard Beauchamp — December, 2012

NOTE: When I simply refer to ‘the pedal’ I mean the right or damper pedal.

Pedalling has an effect on the whole sound picture, rather in the manner of vibrato or bow technique on a stringed instrument or the use of various kinds of resonance in singing. It should not be thought of as something tacked on after you have learned the notes, nor simply a way of sustaining sounds when you can no longer hold them with your hands. Too often the pedal is used merely as a tool for holding sounds on (which is the only way the pedal functions on an electronic keyboard) and there is no attention paid to the differences in timbre that are possible. I know of a teacher who would not allow his pupils to use the sustaining pedal until they had ‘done’ Grade 6. Sadly, this is perhaps too late to learn the skill in a way that can become truly subconscious and intuitive.

The movements of the foot should be in response to a need for a particular quality of sound, and all truly reliable technique (if we are talking about a technique for making music) is formed in response to such a ‘need for sound’ (to paraphrase the title of Patsy Rodenburg’s book about acting, “The Need For Words”), just as reliable walking is developed by a need to move from A to B. To take a specific example: When practising overlap pedal (see below), you first have to experience the desire or ‘need’ for a note, then the need to make the sound richer by raising the dampers — thus adding sympathetic resonance, next the need to hear two notes sounding together in the same pedal and finally the desire to hear the first note cease and the second note continue on its own. No amount of mechanical counting and up-and-downing of the pedal can produce such certainty and control, because it is not based on musical needs.

Ernest Empson used to say “Pedal with your ear!” — A lovely Dumbo-esque image comes to mind!

Good pedalling should be almost impossible to notate. It often has more to do with subtle changes of pressure of the foot on the pedal in response to qualities of sound required by the player’s musical imagination — often just changing the weight of the dampers on the strings, rather than simply moving the pedal up and down at predetermined points.

So, how do we develop this integrated response to imagination?

First we need to acquire a palette of tone colours in our imagination, make this as large as possible and constantly build on it. This should be started as soon as possible with young children in their first lessons and added to frequently, so that we are talking with them about the real stuff of sound. Children give up music lessons because they are taught about crotchets and quavers, fingerings and dynamics. They need to have a chance to fall in love with sound and to be asked what they themselves feel about it or have discovered in their own listening (and their own listening doesn’t necessarily have to mean musical instruments — it can be the sounds of water, wind, wine glasses, trains and speech).

Having acquired this mental library of sounds, we need to practice creating them ourselves or finding approximations to them on the piano — or on whatever instrument we happen to play. This should be done without being told how to by the teacher, although subtle guidance, suggestion or demonstration could help. A good look at the workings of the piano and its acoustical properties can be a stimulus to the imagination. Open the piano right up, pluck the strings, sing into it — with and without the pedal down — lightly touch the nodal points of the harmonic series etc. Henry Cowell’s auto harp effects, as well as tricks with the sostenuto pedal (e.g. holding a silent chord in the sostenuto pedal, putting down the sustaining pedal, playing wild glissandi and chromatic scales and then gradually lifting the sustaining pedal so that the chord emerges like a musical ghost — as happens in Berio’s Sequenza IV for Piano) usually inspire pupils to go away and experiment). Show pupils the bell under the Steinway Grand (yes, every Steinway grand has one) and show them how it takes the vibrations from the top strings, amplifies them and shoots them into the 7 ply frame so that they travel right round the piano. Could this invention have been a result of Heinrich Steinweg’s acquaintance with Helmholtz?

Show them how, and why, the una corda pedal works — and show them how to adjust the screw at the right end of the keyboard to change its sound.

Show them the differences in playing a note without pedal, putting the pedal down after playing a note (what do they hear), and putting the pedal down with or before a note (discuss white noise, the sound of a stream or a forest, how sympathetic vibration works, the harmonic series, why even though the top notes don’t have dampers you can still tell when the pedal is down).

Next — certainly not first — we learn the technical skills to help us use the pedal effectively; but always with reference to the sounds we are trying to find.

Preliminary exercises

Place the foot on the pedal. Move the foot up and down smoothly and easily, keeping the heel on the floor and not letting the foot come off the pedal when it is lifted. If this is difficult, adjust the sitting position so that the angles of foot and leg are more comfortable. See if you can move the pedal up and down fairly quickly and smoothly without any noise — except a slight whispering from the dampers. There should be no ‘clunk’ as the pedal reaches the top of its movement.

Put the pedal down and play a single note. Lift your finger off the keyboard and listen to the note sounding — right until it dies away completely. You might time the durations of notes in different parts of the keyboard with a stopwatch.

Put the pedal down, play a note and lift your finger off as before. Listen to the note and let the pedal come up very gradually. See if you can tell the moment when the dampers just lightly touch the strings — and then notice how far you have to lift the pedal before the sound stops completely. Was it when the pedal was right up, or was it just before that? Try stopping the note with quicker and slower movements of the pedal. Notice the differences in the way the note ends.

Main exercises

1. Legato pedal

The aim is to play a succession of chords or a scale with one finger without a break in the sound and without any overlaps in the sounds.

  • Play the first note or chord.
  • Put down the pedal whilst holding the note.
  • Remove your hand from the keyboard and enjoy the fact that the note is still sounding.
  • Prepare to play the next note.
  • Play the next note whilst letting the pedal come up gently and smoothly (no quick jerks!). Time this movement so that the previous notes ceases at exactly the same time as the new note begins.

Practice this exercise a lot, until it becomes really fluent and natural. Remember, this is an exercise for the ears even more than for the foot.

2. Overlap pedal

The aim is to merge the end of one chord or note with the beginning of the next, so that they, as it were, ‘rub shoulders’ with each other. This merging can be very transitory or more prolonged, depending on the effect you want.

  • Play the first note or chord.
  • Put down the pedal whilst holding the note.
  • Remove your hand from the keyboard and hear the note is still sounding.
  • Prepare to play the next note.
  • Play the next note and leave the pedal down. Hear the two notes sounding together.
  • Whilst holding the new note, let the pedal come up until the first note stops.
  • Check that the new note is pure.

3. Articulation pedal

The aim is to separate each note, whilst adding resonance by using pedal. The gap between the notes can be anything from barely discernible — like a very smooth bow change — to more widely spaced, and the ends of the notes can be gently tapered or more sharply cut off as required. The use of the pedal not only adds resonance to each note, but also enables a better preparation of the next sound together with a more controlled finish to the notes, with all the sympathetic strings coming off together.

  • Play the first note or chord.
  • Put down the pedal whilst holding the note.
  • Remove your hand from the keyboard and hear the note is still sounding.
  • Prepare to play the next note.
  • Move towards the new note to play it, but, just before it sounds, let the damper cut off the previous note. Practise making the smallest gap possible (imagine a sheet of rice paper between the notes) and experiment with the gentlest cut off from the dampers. This works beautifully in Mozart slow movements, where many pianists don’t even try to make the articulations as marked. Properly managed, they can make the music ‘speak’ like a well played violin or oboe.

4. Joining pedal

The aim is to join notes which can not be joined with the hands — or because they need to sound as legato slurs without breaks between them — whilst adding as little sympathetic resonance as possible. The pedal is used only to join the notes, but not to add any extra colour to the sounds.

  • Play a chord or note.
  • Put the pedal down as close as possible to the intended end of the chord and lift your hand off the chord as soon as the dampers are lifted.
  • Play the next chord immediately and simultaneously let the pedal up.

It is useful to practise this technique with two note slurs, fingered e.g. 3–2, 3–2, 3–2 etc.

  • Play the first note of the slur, using no pedal.
  • Play the second note and put the pedal down after you have played it.
  • Lift your hand to prepare for the next slur.
  • Play the first note of the next slur and simultaneously let the pedal up.

Practise this until you can do it quickly and smoothly, with no pedal noise.

5. Half pedal effects

The aim is to produce a limited amount of resonance. This can add fluidity to part of a phrase, take away dryness without sounding ‘pedalled’, or produce a sustained pizzicato effect, such as a plucked double base or cello.

Play staccato notes in the middle to tenor register of the keyboard and, while doing so, gradually put weight on the sustaining pedal. You should not lift the dampers off the strings, but only take some of the weight off them. Experiment with different degrees of weight to produce various proportions of sustain to staccato. Try to play an arpeggio which sounds plucked but sustained. Try the opening of Bartok’s Bulgarian Dance No 2 from Mikrokosmos Vol 6, which can sound like a kind of drum with a ‘ring.’

6. Half damping

The aim is to partially damp notes. This is particularly useful when trying to keep bass notes going whilst clearing chords higher up in pitch — and possible because lower notes take longer to damp fully. Often this effect is preferable to using the sostenuto pedal to hold bass notes while changing chords with the sustaining pedal, as that can sound strangely artificial (and I’m not sure why, but I suspect it maybe because we are used to hearing sympathetic strings relating to the bass notes).

This can be done in two different ways: either by a very quick full damping, or by a very light and short touching of the strings by the dampers. Practice by playing staccato notes with the pedal fully down and see how many times you can lightly, or quickly (or both) change the pedal without losing the note altogether.

Pedalling, balance and clarity

Longer pedallings are possible if chords are well balanced and phrases are well graded dynamically. If the last note you play is the loudest, it will come through the ‘halo’ of sound created by a long pedal — often to very good effect. Likewise, if you wait longer before playing a note after a long pedal, it will also come through, because the other notes will have died away. It is an illuminating exercise to play a whole piece through in one pedal using balance and timing to make it sound clear.

In composers such as Debussy, the textures are often built up from the bass and ‘float’ above it. It is usually a worse crime to clear the upper parts by changing the pedal and losing the bass than it is to put up with some blurring (or a beautiful halo of sound, as I prefer to think of it!). If the effect is bad, it is usually because the balance and dynamic grading are poor.

In Baroque music, pedalling style should be consistent. Using the pedal changes the colour — or ‘instrumentation’ so should not be used simply to make a legato you can’t manage otherwise. Perhaps the intended effect was non-legato in any case — if one takes the view that composers like Bach knew what their music sounded like on an instrument which did not have a sustaining pedal!

Sometimes lines — especially in the bass (such as some of the entries in the second movement of Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet) need to have more ‘focus’ and therefore less or no pedal. Using pedal in these cases can make the sound more diffused. There are hundreds of many specific cases of uses of the pedal which could be discussed at length, but it is best left to individual pianists to listen to many performances and to develop their own sense of musical taste.

The subject of the una corda pedal has not been covered here, but I would like to point out that there is more than one position for it. The hammer is moved gradually sideways under the string and so there are a number of different parts of the felt available to experiment with. I also believe that the una corda does not necessarily need to be either on or off for a section of music, but can also be used within a phrase — rather as a string player might vary bow speed or the distance from the bridge to change colour or to develop the sound from note to note.

Since writing this, I’ve discovered this excellent article on pedalling by Ilinca Vartic: Using the Piano Pedals — The Art Behind the Mechanism, which I highly recommend — as I do the rest of her website

©Richard Beauchamp, 18 December, 2012
 Disclaimer


Originally published at www.musicandhealth.co.uk.