I have an adult diploma student who is incredibly meticulous and organised. He needs to be fully in control of everything he does – in his professional work, and at the piano. He writes lots of fingerings into his score, and every sound he makes is considered. Needless to say his playing is excellent because he strives for nothing less than this with intelligence, passion and total commitment.
The other day he asked me for some pedalling for a Beethoven sonata, so he could write it in his score. There are certain spots where we can say with certainty that we will pedal in such-and-such a way (and could therefore mark this in), but so many other places where we might need some pedal or we might not, and attempting to notate this would be misguided. Why is this so?
Apart from joining sounds the fingers alone cannot join, one of the main uses of the (right) pedal is to add resonance. This might mean building up sound by holding the pedal through a harmony spread over a range of the keyboard, or even (if done carefully) during a scale pattern. I notice more and more how I am achieving blended sounds by overlapping in the fingers – holding down harmonic tones by hand, or playing a melody line not thinking about precision in the releases. I find it is the combination of overholding notes with my fingers and short, fractional pedals that liquifies my sound and brings it to life.
Take great care when there is a bass note that needs to be held in the pedal not to lose this. First of all, the presence of a bass that is firm and deliberate enough forgives what our eye might perceive as dissonance from notes above. Keep the bass at all costs! If the sound swims too much for your ear, remember that in a large room or hall this won’t necessarily be the case when it reaches the listener. Also remember that the foot is always adjusting the resonance by dancing around that part of the pedal that controls where the dampers brush against the strings. This is the sweet spot. Great pianist-composers know that bass notes damp less quickly and less readily than notes in the higher registers and write accordingly. Savvy pianists know it is possible to preserve the bass while making tiny adjustments of the pedal to eliminate the worst of the blurring above. In this extract from the middle section of Rachmaninov’s G minor Prelude, op. 23, no. 5, I like to keep the low D in the pedal at least to the end of the phrase. When the harmonies change, I adjust the pedal rather than change it. By how much? I could not possibly tell you, it depends on the piano and the room. It feels like a vibration or a flickering of the foot – all I can tell you is that you get good at it with experience, and with careful listening. Make no pedal adjustment and you get a horrible mess, make full pedal changes and you get something dry and choppy. Experiment with it, but don’t attempt to write any pedalling in the score.
Dabs of Pedal
Another type of pedalling impossible to notate is those tiny dabs of pedal we use to add dimension to our sound. The pedal goes down a fraction of the way and is barely noticeable. The point here is that it would be noticeable by its absence – the listener would perceive the sound as dry and flat without it. These two diagrams illustrate the point. In A you see a circle, in B a ball or sphere. The tiny highlight in the diagram is enough to supply the third dimension. Where we put these pedal dabs depends on the feedback we are getting from our ear. Perhaps those who disapprove of pedal in Bach might be more kindly disposed to this way of using the pedal? Let’s hope so.
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