Look, No Feet! – Practising the Piano

People think in terms of pianists’ fingers – not their feet – but a direct line of communication from our ear to our right foot is an absolute necessity and there’s no doubt that fancy footwork is an integral part of our technique. I once witnessed a masterclass given by an expert in contemporary music where the sostenuto (middle) pedal was in constant use, and occasionally controlled by a left foot that was operating the left (una corda) pedal at the same time. When the right foot wasn’t busy with the right (sustaining) pedal it too took turns on the middle pedal.

In my previous post on pedalling, The Dance of the Dampers, I discussed partial pedalling and the imprecise nature of pedal marks we usually find in the score. How can we possibly notate pedalling when it will vary from player to player, from piano to piano and from one room or performance space to another? Many composers and editors of piano music have felt it necessary or helpful to add pedal markings, but I would not recommend slavish adherence to these. One of the most confusing and irritating pedal notations is the abbreviation “Ped” with a star mark * indicating the release. The placement of the * mark is very often so imprecise as to be plainly wrong – lifting at the * and then waiting for the next “Ped” to put it down again would leave a gap. While this sort of disjointed pedalling was more common in the nineteenth century, we don’t tend to do much of it nowadays. I doubt that the composer actually meant this most of the time anyway and I advise players to use their discretion when figuring out if a release or a change of pedal is called for. And how is it possible to notate shallow pedals, partial changes, flutter pedal and tiny dabs of pedal? It isn’t! I rather like Schumann’s approach – he often just puts “Pedal” in brackets under the staves at the start, presumably meaning don’t forget the pedal.

The other thing that causes confusion is where there is a specific pedal mark in parts of a composition but no markings elsewhere. Players with literal minds will tend to assume that because there is a marking here and not there, we only use the pedal where it is marked. Perhaps the composer (or the editor) had a particular sonority in mind for that spot, maybe an exception to a more regular pedalling. This does not, of course, mean not to pedal elsewhere where there is nothing marked in the score. Use your discretion, use your intuition and above all use your ear.

The Una Corda (or Shift Pedal)

We use the una corda not so much to play softly (we should be able to do that with the fingers) but rather to change the quality of the sound by muting it. It is quite possible to use the una corda and to play firmly, if you want that type of sound. If you think of it like covering your mouth with a hanky as you speak, it’s not so much the volume that is affected but the clarity and projection of the sound. So it is with the una corda. Players are either squeamish about using the left pedal or they use it way too often, and for the wrong reasons. Perhaps they practise in surroundings where they feel they are making too much noise and they get into the habit of almost constant left pedal use. Or maybe they don’t really like the sound that is coming out so dive for the shift pedal in attempt to cover it up, to make their sound less distinct (and therefore “better”). By all means let us avail ourselves of the shift pedal when we’re after a particular sound – it is a part of our instrument, and it is there to be used.

squeaky mouse

Practising Without Pedal

Because practising with the pedal (and here I am speaking of the right pedal) feels and sounds good it is easy to get too cosy and to wallow in the gorgeous sounds we are making. I recommend regularly practising deliberately without pedal – we will hear everything very clearly and there is no hiding those finger sins. Each bump, each uneven patch, each faulty voicing or blemish will be revealed in its full glory. Make a decision to practise dry a lot of the time – you will hear so much more! If you like, you can distinguish between legato pedalling (using the pedal to join sounds the fingers alone cannot join) and pedalling for resonance (to blend sounds and add colour and highlights), and just practise legato pedalling the necessary joins.

Making a decision to practise without either pedal is all well and good but this is easier said than done, especially if the habit is deeply ingrained. You will find your foot creeping back there no matter how much you don’t want it to! You can somehow disable the pedal by putting a book across, or better yet – invest in a squeaky mouse. Every time your foot automatically ventures onto temporarily forbidden territory, it will emit an annoying squeak and before long you will have been cured of the habit.

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In Part 3 of my ebook series, I explore scale and arpeggio playing in depth. Included are many ideas for practising, as well as rhythm charts,  practice charts, other interactive features and video demonstrations.

Preview or buy Practising the Piano Part 3

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As part of my research for Part 4 (on performance), I have devised a short (very short, actually) survey – Performance Anxiety among Pianists, the results of which I will collate and include in the publication. I would be most grateful if you would take two or three minutes to complete the survey. It really is very brief, and you will be completely anonymous. Whether you are a professional pianist, a piano student or play for your own pleasure your opinion and comments count.

Let me thank you very much indeed in advance for your time and input!

Take the survey