On the first glance, the pedals are simply levers which move in certain ways the piano mechanism.
Using them, however, is an art. For mastering it, we need to combine the same good old ingredients: knowledge, awareness, imagination, technical skill, experience and also a spark of inspiration and creativity. And don’t forget about the most powerful trick – a positive state of mind!
Experienced pianists use the pedals instinctively, without thinking anymore about rules and other theoretical details. However, in order to get to this advanced level, we have to learn the theory first and develop at the same time all the needed mental and technical skills.
A good ‘pedaling instinct’ is based on knowledge, a very good hearing and mindful practice. A poor one results from blind experiments and mechanical playing.
So let’s take it one step at a time and explore together this useful, interesting and yet often neglected piano topic.
In the first part of my video, I show you how the piano pedals work and which are their functions.
In the second part of the video tutorial, I describe the main pedaling techniques – or how you should use the sustain pedal in order to create certain effects which will help you to play musically and expressively.
The piano is the only instrument (except for percussion instruments) that does not allow the performer to control the sound after producing it. After we press a key, the sound will inevitably fade. Even more – releasing a key ends the sound abruptly, and this makes it impossible to connect two notes situated far from each other by using our fingers alone. Sometimes it’s also difficult to change the timbre of the sound only by modifying the force, speed and depth of our key attack.
This is when the pedals come to our rescue!
First, a little bit of necessary theory (I’ll try to make it short and not boring!):
The Piano Pedals – Mechanism and Functions
Modern Grand Pianos have two standard pedals: the right pedal (also called the sustain or the damper pedal) and the left pedal (the soft pedal or the una corda pedal).
The sustain pedal is the most important one. Without it, the modern piano would be a simple percussion-like instrument with a limited sonority and a poor expressive diapason.
The soft pedal is important as well, but not as ‘vital’ as the sustain :). It is present on all pianos nowadays, even if in upright pianos its mechanism is different: instead of shifting the hammers to the right, it brings them closer to the strings, this way reducing their sonority.
Now let’s summarize the functions of the 2 standard pedals, as I describe them in the video:
The sustain pedal has two functions:
1. Allowing the sound to continue even after we release the keys;
2. Changing the timbre of the sound, making it deeper, warmer, more intense, more ‘alive’.
The soft pedal has two functions as well:
1. Making the sound softer;
2. Changing the timbre of the sound and making it more distant.
The grand piano which I used for my video demonstration is a classical European model and it doesn’t have a middle pedal. I couldn’t show you how it works, but I can certainly write about it just as I promised!
The middle pedal (usually called the sostenuto pedal) is a rare ‘species’. It doesn’t like the European climate, being mostly encountered in the USA. And it prefers inhabiting Grand Pianos, being afraid of upright models. Or maybe it is simply too proud and considers itself too ‘royal’ for little instruments?
One way or the other, it has ‘super powers’: it allows us to sustain certain notes without affecting all the others we play after pressing this pedal!
This is how the middle pedal works: if we engage the pedal while pressing a key or a chord, it holds up only those dampers which have been raised by their keys. All the other notes we may play afterwards will sound perfectly detached because the remaining dampers will not be affected by the pedal!
For this reason, I think that the term ‘sostenuto’ is probably not the most suitable one for this pedal. After all, ‘sostenuto’ means sustain (which is the function of the right pedal!). Another name, which I think is more appropriate, is ‘tone-sustaining’ pedal – because it DOES sustain ONLY certain tones – and not all of them! You can also call it the ‘Super-Pedal’, but this is entirely up to you!
As amazing as this pedal is, it’s the least used of the three pedals of the Grand Piano. Why? Because it is not needed for playing the biggest part of the pianistic repertoire! Only several composers actually make use of this pedal, indicating it in the score – for example Debussy or Ravel. However, we can play their pieces without the middle pedal as well – only by cleverly using the sustain and the soft pedals.
One more thing: appearances can be deceiving! Many pianos (grand or upright models) have three pedals, but sometimes the middle pedal has a totally different function (and not the ‘super-tone-sustain’ effect I just described). For example, upright pianos usually have a silent (practice) pedal instead of the sostenuto pedal. My home upright instrument has a middle locking pedal which makes the piano sound like a harpsichord by lowering a row of dangling steel ‘things’ (I don’t know their official English name) between the hammers and the strings!
Throughout history, there were many experiments with the piano pedal mechanism – and they usually touched the functions of the middle pedal. The standard pedals, because of their obvious usefulness, remain unaffected by all these changes. However, who knows what the future holds?
Now that we’ve successfully emerged from the ‘mechanism and functions’ theoretical jungle, let’s move to some more theory… which is (finally!) more captivating and actionable!
Sustain Pedal Techniques
Before learning the main pedaling techniques, you should be able to control the pedal mechanism properly!
Pressing and releasing the pedal smoothly.
It’s impossible to play musically without learning how to use the pedal mechanism correctly. As I show you in the video, we should always press the pedals smoothly, gradually, without sudden movements and without making noise. We have to imagine that our foot is ‘glued’ to the surface of the pedal, forming an organic ‘whole’ with the instrument. Also, make sure that your foot is ‘covering’ only the larger half of the pedal (this also depends on the shape of your shoes, but generally try to keep your foot as close as possible to the rounded part of the pedal).
The way you use the pedals should be closely related to the character of the music. It’s not appropriate to change the pedal in a slow, heavy manner if you play a fast, light, sparkling piece/fragment – and vice-versa! However, the smooth, silent pedal action is always mandatory!
Now that you can use the pedal without making awkward noises and movements, let’s move to the next level!
As I show you in the video, there are 3 main pedaling techniques:
1. The delayed pedal – engaging the sustain pedal after playing a note, interval or chord, but before releasing the keys, this way catching the sound and connecting it with the next one. It allows us to connect different notes and harmonies, at the same time keeping them clear of dissonant sounds. This technique is also called indirect pedal, syncopated pedal, retarded pedal, legato pedal or overlapping pedal.
In the Russian piano school, this is the first pedaling technique we learn. By carefully listening to the rich and clear sonority that it allows us to create, we also master the needed ‘reverse’ technical coordination: the hands go down while the foot goes up.
2. The simultaneous pedal – pressing the pedal at the same time with the keys. This technique helps us to accent a certain note or chord and make it sound deeper, more important, more intense. It is useful in playing pieces with a sharp, exact, ‘dancing’ character – especially in waltzes. By emphasizing the first beat of each bar (or another beat, depending on genre), this short pedal helps us to feel the rhythm of the piece better. This technique is also called direct pedal or rhythmic pedal.
3. The preliminary pedal. This pedaling technique is extremely easy, but sometimes it can create a truly amazing effect. It means pressing the pedal before playing the first sound of a piece. We can use this trick for activating all the resonating properties of the piano in advance – so when we begin to play, the sound will be really deep and vibrant – after all, it will have the ‘back-up’ of all the other strings!
But this is not all!
The Sustain Pedal – ‘Gradation’ Levels
There are three main ways of pressing the sustain pedal (no matter if we talk about the delayed or the simultaneous pedaling techniques):
1. The full pedal – pressing the pedal all the way down, and then raising it (or changing it) all the way up. This pedal gradation is the easiest one, being used by all beginner and intermediate students.
2. The half pedal. This technique is not necessary for beginners, being usually explained only to advanced students.
Actually, there are two types of ‘half pedals’. In the first case, we press the pedal only halfway down, and raise it all the way up: this way, we raise the dampers, but they are still close to the strings, so the vibrations of the strings are limited and so is the sound continuity.
In the second case, we press the pedal all the way down, but we don’t raise it – we only change it halfway up. This technique is extremely powerful: by skillfully using it, the lower notes will be sustained, while the notes in the higher registers will remain transparent and detached.
This pedaling ‘gradation’ is useful when playing multi-layered music, for example piano transcriptions of Bach’s Organ works, where we originally had 3 staves instead of two. As you all probably know, on the organ we have the possibility of holding bass notes with the foot keyboard, while everything we play with our fingers remains perfectly detached. By using the half pedal technique, we can somehow imitate this effect. We can also imitate it by using the middle pedal, but, as I said, it doesn’t ‘inhabit’ all pianos :). The half pedal is also useful in playing orchestral transcriptions – again, when we need to sustain a bass note without affecting the transparency and accuracy of the superior voices.
3. The quarter pedal and other subtle pedaling ‘tricks’. Professional pianists are not pedaling ‘by the book’. They ‘play’ with the sustain pedal, pressing it in thousands of different ways which cannot be described by simple written words. This skill develops gradually, being the result of experience and a constant ‘sharpening’ of our hearing and our musical awareness.
The basic theoretic fundamentals of the piano pedals are officially covered! Now let’s move to the artistic part:
Piano Pedal Tips – On Hearing, Visualization… and Practice!
1. Activating your hearing.
As Heinrich Neuhaus wrote in his amazing book The Art of Piano Playing, “The art of pedaling is governed by the ear”.
We should remember this quote more often – and not only when using the pedal!
Therefore, the first rule in using the sustain pedal is activating our hearing. This is the secret that makes the difference between a musically appropriate pedaling and… a less inspired one!
Our hearing allows us to control the accuracy of the pedal. In the Russian piano school, we often use the terms ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ pedal :).
A clean pedal means changing the pedal according to the intentions of the composer – usually by playing each harmony on a new pedal. There may be exceptions – for example combining two/several different (yet complimentary) harmonies (or changing the pedal on the same harmony!). However, these exceptions are always indicated in the score.
A dirty pedal means ‘gluing’ together dissonant sounds – or not using the pedal according to the meaning of the music.
If you have a good hearing and you practice with awareness, you should not worry about playing with a dirty, false pedal – your ears will simply not allow it!
When practicing pedaling techniques, we are in fact training our hearing. As I often mention in my articles, piano playing begins in our mind, in our hearing, in our imagination, in our capacity of visualizing the desired sonority. The same can be said about using the sustain pedal! When you picture in your mind a clean, musically appropriate pedaling, your foot will obediently follow! When, on the other hand, you allow your foot to be ‘in charge’ and you simply wait to see ‘what will happen’, you’ll never be able to play musically and expressively – you’ll simply struggle with the pedal mechanism!
So, mastering pedal techniques means developing our musical fantasy, learning to listen, to discern subtle colors of the sound. We have to listen to the music and its message, not to the movement of the pedal mechanism! We should also make sure that we create a beautiful pedaled sound: soft, bright, deep, luminous, expressive.
This approach (imagination-hearing-pedaling) is very powerful. In time, it will allow you to reach that level of mastery which I mention in the beginning of this article – where the use of the pedal becomes instinctive, automatic. You’ll simply see the goal in your mind (playing beautifully a certain piece) and your foot will ‘unconsciously’ press the pedal for making your vision come true!
2. Practicing without pedal.
Yes, after writing such a long article about pedaling techniques, now I’ll emphasize the importance of a pedal-less practice! Alexander Goldenweiser, one of the founders of the Russian piano school, used to say that “the art of pedaling is first of all the ability to play without pedal”.
Does it sound paradoxical? Only on the first glance!
There are two reasons for practicing without pedal:
a) Piano playing is – among many other things – the art of coordination. It’s difficult for a beginner (or even an intermediate student) to coordinate the myriad of elements involved in piano playing: accurate text, fingering, rhythm, dynamics, articulation, a quality sound, a good phrasing AND the pedal. That’s why all beginners should first practice a piece WITHOUT pedal, and then ADD the pedal when the text is mastered to a certain degree and it feels more comfortable.
b) The biggest challenge in piano playing is to create the illusion that the sound can be maintained longer than the mechanism allows, that we can make a real legato where each sound passes smoothly into the next one without the gaps caused by the inevitable fading of the sound.
By using the sustain pedal, it’s much easier to create this illusion! This pedal ‘simplifies’ our life considerably, and thus our hearing and the ‘connecting’ properties of our fingers begin to get rusty. Practicing without pedal is like running with weights attached to our legs: it’s very hard! When we remove the weights (when we play with pedal), running (piano playing) feels like flying!
So, we practice without pedal for two reasons: the first reason simplifies our practice, while the second one complicates it :). Achieving balance is a really interesting process, isn’t it?
And, of course, don’t forget to practice WITH pedal as well. Ideally, you should combine these two types of practice – with and without pedal.
In my video tutorial, I promised to describe how to use the pedals depending on the style of the epoch/composer. I also wanted to share with you the basics of pedal notation. However, this article is getting too long (pedaling is a fascinating and complex subject!) and I decided to cover these topics in my next article – so stay tuned!
A good pedaling technique is not our purpose – it is simply a means to an end. Our purpose is bringing to life beautiful piano masterpieces, playing them expressively and convincingly – and enjoying the entire process! The pedaling techniques I describe above are just tools that help us to get closer to this purpose.
So, no matter how ‘down to Earth’ a certain piano playing element is (for example, the pedal)… it still begins in our mind!
To be continued…
P.S. Do you need help with using the pedal in a certain piece you’re currently practicing? Post all your pedaling questions in the comment form below!