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Pedal Properly - A Quick Reference

Jack Mitchell Smith piano pianist piano teacher macclesfield blog Congleton Cheshire pedal sustain lesson

As stated in a previous blog of mine, the sustain pedal (that is, the pedal on the right side as you face the piano) is something of a luxury for pianists. So much so, in fact, that it becomes massively overused.

The result?

Well, there's two:

  • If pedalling incorrectly you don't necessarily. get a nice, clean sound as sounds will mush into one another. It is, after all, the sustain pedal...and...

  • It covers a multitude of sins, meaning that your technique can actually falter.

So, how do we interpret how to pedal.

A quick reference:

Baroque Music

Baroque Music refers to a period of music between around 1600 to around 1750 - pre-classical, if you like.

It is also the era of music prior to which the piano was popularised - or even existed. Whilst organs very much did exist, the favourite instrument of the home was the harpsichord. Now, speaking as somebody who has in fact played a harpsichord (Wordsworth House) back in 2008, I can confirm that the following is true:

Harpsichords are infinitely less expressive than a piano.

Yes, they have a beautiful sound of their own, but thanks to the nature of their plucking mechanism rather than their striking mechanism associated with the piano, the harpsichord doesn't offer dynamic range in accordance with how hard or soft you press a key (the novelty of a piano being able to do this led to its name - Pianoforte - literally 'soft loud' in Italian - which has been condensed somewhat over time to 'Piano').

Yet there is something else that the harpsichord doesn't offer: Pedals!

Yet another novelty of the piano which allowed for expression, but if you think about it, it explains why an awful lot of Baroque era music was - for want of a better word - relentless. This is why a lot of music from the era (same can be said for the orchestral or chamber works as well) is strict in tempo and also features very regimented melody.

Playing works by the like of Bach, Purcell, Handel and others doesn't strictly require pedal, therefore. Even their slow ones as - if a keyboard piece - they likely wouldn't have been written for the early piano instrument anyway, but sometimes you can be forgiven a helping hand and a little expression. Nonetheless, when learning works such as Bach's 'Well Tempered Clavier' then it is essential you learn to play these pieces without assistance from the pedal. Only afterwards can you attempt to put some in - sparingly for Baroque music - but it can be done.

Whilst it can be tempting to cheat with some pieces - such as Handel's famous Air 'The Harmonious Blacksmith', you should also get into the habit of reading Baroque era music properly and holding notes on for their duration with your fingers rather than relying on sustain to do the work for you. Again, this can be added later to create a more expressive piece than perhaps the composer envisaged thanks to the wonder of the piano, but get those fingers working properly first!

Jack Mitchell Smith piano pianist piano teacher macclesfield blog Congleton Cheshire pedal sustain lesson
Get used to holding those long notes on for Baroque pieces!

Pedal Markings in Music

Pedal markings are fairly easy to spot because the right pedal is marked by 'Ped.'. If you see this, this means to put the pedal down. However, this on its own does not necessarily mean to keep it help down until told to lift up (this can be marked either by a long line with triangles to imply when to lift, or by using what I'm just going to refer to as a spiky circle symbol!). You need to take a little responsibility in assessing when to do so!

Similarly, don't be tempted to stick rigidly to when the music tells you to lift up and down. It can be of assistance, but sometimes it can not feel right or even sound right according to your own performance or interpretation.

Jack Mitchell Smith piano pianist piano teacher macclesfield blog Congleton Cheshire pedal sustain lesson
A Pedal Marking in 'I Giorni' by Einaudi

Pedalling by Ear

There is a very simple rule of thumb for pedalling by ear. Actually, more like two. If you're just playing something for yourself, whether you be making it up or playing something you know but without a reference point, consider the following two things:

  • Where is the first measure of each bar?

  • Where do the chords change?

In a typical pop song, for example, it wouldn't be uncommon to change chords only once per bar. Therefore, it may be the case that you can just lift the pedal up immediately prior to the first measure of each bar and have a very pleasing result. Think along the lines of 'My Heart Will Go On'. This can be pedalled beautifully with just a lift on each bar.

However, consider assessing the music using your instinct a little more and consider where the chords actually are changing. They might not change more than once per bar, but you might find that it does. Or you might find that sometimes it does. For example, 'Yesterday'.

This song - once the melody has kicked in - has a whole bar of F major, then within the second bar it is E minor to A7, both for two beats. That's two chords in a bar. So here you can alternate - perhaps keep the pedal down for the first bar, then lift up twice during the second, just to avoid any unpleasant clashes and to keep it clean.

Analyse Intervals and Tempo

This again is something that you should do during the practice sessions of your piece. You need to consider the length of your sustain bearing in mind that an acoustic piano has an average of about 10 seconds.

The reason for this is because 10 seconds is plenty of time to create unpleasant and often undesirable effects (believe me, there are times when the dissonance is most desirable!). For example, take a very slow movement of music. Very slow, such as the 'Grave' passage of Beethoven's 'Pathétique Sonata' (first movement). Yes, there is more to this than just holding the pedal down, but because of how slow you play ('Grave' is the slowest tempo marking you can hope for!) then you're unlikely to get too much by way of clashing.

However, fast forward to the third movement from the same sonata - the 'Rondo' (which has a lot of tendencies to its Baroque era predecessors) and we're now performing much more quickly.

Although Beethoven doesn't use an awful lot of 'block' chords within this movement, he is still writing music based around chords of the C minor scale (C minor, G7 etc.), and so the previous point can still be considered regarding bars and chord changes anyway, however the tempo makes it of even more importance that we respect our use of the sustain pedal.

Additionally, consider the notes in terms of their proximity to one another. It's always as well to get quite well up on all kinds of intervals so harmonically, because if you are pedalling with melodic intervals, such as a group of two quavers that follow on from each other to make a major second, then by holding on the pedal for both of these notes you're going to create a harmonic interval regardless. A major second, for example, is a nice interval but one that can sometimes muddy up the melody, so be mindful of this. Intervals such as perfect intervals (fourths and fifths) don't necessarily suffer this problem, so using a pedal in these instances may be a pleasantry.

And now, to combine the two, consider any rapid passage of several notes. Even in pieces marked at a slow tempo we can have rapid passages, and it's unlikely that the composer would want a rapid passage of notes to mush. Again, depending on the notes and the intervals it may be indifferent. For example, a rapid succession of notes that just repeats chords may not only sound good with but also benefit from a pedal held down for its entirety, whereas a rapid chromatic - due to it being a string of minor seconds - may not sound great. Don't forget the average sustain length is 10 seconds!

For Technical Assistance

And for the last point, the pedal can be used to assist where our fingers let us down.

I doubt there is a pianist in this world who doesn't use some sort of trick with the pedal to assist.

The most common trick that we can assign to the pedal is especially beneficial to those of us with short fingers (not me, I dare say!) - or, indeed, where a piece of notation just seems to be impossible or cause an uncomfortable stretch.

Take Rachmaninoff, for example. Famed for his supersized hands and huge stretch, his music is considered very difficult due to this. And whilst some of the stretches are just uncomfortably unavoidable, those that seem to be impossible can be assisted with a little help from our friend - the sustain pedal.

Jack Mitchell Smith piano pianist piano teacher macclesfield blog Congleton Cheshire pedal sustain lesson
How could the pedal assist with this Rachmaninoff interval?

Even my fingers couldn't reach from a C# to a B nearly 2 octaves above, but what we can do is rely on the pedal to deliberately make it sound as if we were utilising expression in our piece of music. Rather than count a strict 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 into the bar in which this interval resides, consider the C# merely a grace note (an extremely lost acciacatura, if you will) and depress the pedal to allow it to ring out. Now find the B and proceed with the passage, at all times being mindful to very, very slightly lift that pedal just enough so as to not let the C# dampen, but just enough to soften the impact of each preceding group of triplets / left hand crotchet, thus avoiding clashes (especially as they work down chromatically!).

This is adaptable to any piece, of course, and if you're struggling with anything, whether it be a splayed chord, a grace note or just the relent from one bar or passage into another, you can use the pedal ornamentally to create an effect that - whilst not necessarily in the composer's original vision - may just allow you to enhance and complete your performance.


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