More on the Pedal – Practising the Piano

Further to last week’s post on pedalling through rests, a reader wrote to me asking why Rachmaninov added the rests at the beginning of the G minor Etude Tableau if he wanted these bars to be pedalled through:

op 33 Rach

Why not just write the notes like this, to avoid any confusion?

Rachmaninov 1

In the first example (Rachmaninov’s), the phrase mark over each group of notes implies that these notes be parcelled up somehow. Even though this is one long G minor harmony, the first two bars are made up of four separate pulsings of this harmony. Our every instinct, when met with such a phrase mark, is to taper our sound off slightly. I don’t know about you, but I would be inclined to include the most minuscule of diminuendos through the last three semiquavers of each phrase (the effect is like an exhaling of breath), and start the next group of notes the tiniest bit late (the rest is the place where we breathe in again).

In the second example (mine), the effect would be quite different. Instead of four separate floating puffs of harmony, we would tend to make a mini crescendo to the last note of each group so that the B flats in bar 1 receive the weight of two semiquavers (the B flat itself and then the weight of the tied note). We would then be adding a syncopation into the mix. Furthermore, we would feel these two bars as one long phrase, possibly even with a slight forward momentum implied by the seamlessly connected note patterns. The presence of the rests and how we shape the notes would be quite different if we did it the second way.

I hope this underscores how touch, phrasing and timing affect the musical result quite independently of the pedal. The presence of a long pedal in the first (original) example in no way covers over these articulations and musical intentions.

Chopin’s Pedal Markings

Virtually all of Chopin’s pedal markings indicate “Ped” when the foot must go down, the release shown with an asterisk. The placement of the asterisk directs us to lift the pedal before the next harmony and then reapply it on the beat, rather than changing the pedal as we play the next harmony. Nowadays, we don’t tend to use the former type of pedalling – known as rhythmic or direct pedalling – as it is marked by Chopin (and other composers, usually from the Classical Period), preferring a legato or syncopated pedal instead.

Chopin Fantasie

We need to remember that legato pedalling did not come into standard usage until later in the the nineteenth century. The earlier pianos had less efficient damping systems than our modern instrument. These required the dampers to be lowered onto the strings slightly early, to give the dampers a chance to do their job and for the resonance to die away. Then, the player reapplied the pedal together with the new harmony (adding resonance and emphasising the downbeat). For more on this most interesting subject, I suggest reading Sandra P. Rosenblum’s excellent article in Performance Practice Review, Pedaling the Piano: A Brief Survey from the Eighteenth Century to the Present.

Here is Janina Fialkowska showing us the workings of an 1848 Pleyel grand piano of the type Chopin would have known, and then playing the Waltz in C sharp minor, op. 64 no. 2.


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.

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Q&A: Pedal in Brahms Intermezzo in A minor, op 76 no 7

Continuing with my occasional Q&A series, a reader wrote in with the following query about Brahms’ Intermezzo in A minor, op 76 no 7, currently on the ABRSM Grade 8 syllabus.

I am a teacher and I would be grateful if you could help me with a pedalling query regarding the above piece. It is a current Grade 8 List C option. In my experience, I have learnt that it is fine to pedal through rests in Romantic music. Evidence to support this appears in the introduction notes in another Brahms volume, Seven Fantasies Op.116 where the author says ‘pedalled passages often contain rests……though illogical, this convention is acceptable’ (Ferguson, 1985).

However, the current ABRSM Teaching Notes seem to suggest that the pedal should be lifted for the quaver rests eg. in bars 9 and 11 (Grade 8, 2017-2018, p.41). I have tried this, and at the increased speed of minim 60, I find this fussy and awkward, potentially spoiling the line.

Is it acceptable to pedal through and just do a quick change on the first note of the quaver groups for each change of harmony? I am also doing two light pedal changes in a row for the RH A quaver and C crotchet slur in bar 9 for example, to relieve any clashing of the G sharp to A semitone. I am lifting and stopping the LH in bars 10 and 12 for the rests in the bass clef.

Pedalling is a very personal thing, and very much open to experimentation – even when marked in the score by the composer. Conventional pedal markings cannot take into account depth of pedal depression, or vibrating the pedal to clarify the texture. Pedal markings even as late as Chopin are examples of direct pedalling (hand going down and coming up with the foot), as opposed to legato (or syncopated) pedalling. This is why modern-day pianists come to their own conclusions about Chopin’s pedalling, and why composers such as Debussy and Rachmaninov did not even attempt to write any specific pedal markings – indicating it only on the staves and leaving it up to the individual player.

When it comes to pedalling through rests there is no clear-cut answer. It is safe to assume in music of the Baroque and Classical periods that rests are probably going to be literal (except in pedal textures), and that in Romantic music we need to use our discretion. Remember that we might need to hold the pedal through different varieties of notated touch (staccato, leggiero, etc.) as well as certain rests that are marked in the score. Such touch varieties show up in our sound and are perceived through the pedal.

Keeping the idea that rests can still be felt through the pedal, it is obvious that Brahms intends breaks, or breathing places in the line – or he would have written something like this, calling for half-bar pedalling:

Instead, Brahms chops this phrase up into smaller units, indicated not only by the rests but just as much by the phrase marks. These phrase marks imply a stress at the start of each short phrase and a decay, or diminuendo, through to the end of it (even if this is just two notes) – thus overriding the hierarchy of strong and weak beats dictated by the time signature. So the first thing I would suggest is shaping the RH by removing any stresses or accents on the last notes of the phrases, even though they fall on the main beats, and placing a tenuto on the first notes of each phrase (these would be weak in the absence of the composer’s very specific markings).

I have just been sitting at the piano noodling with this passage and the first thing I wanted to do was to make the passage sound as good as possible without any pedal. In order to achieve this, I found myself holding onto as many of the LH notes under the slurs as was comfortable, a completely legitimate technique known as finger pedalling (or overholding). By controlling the LH dampers by hand (rather than foot) I found I could create most of the resonance and harmonic blending I required (but not all), and of course the RH rests were very clear. Specifically, it ought to be possible for most hand sizes to hang on to the first two or three notes of the LH groups in bar 9, etc., and then add some pedal after the rest. Notating this is extremely clumsy but here are a few scribbles that I think are worth trying out.

I admit this solution might not be for everyone, and possibly at the Grade 8 level a bit too complicated – but it worked for me!  You can always try this solution from Emil von Sauer’s edition, which also works well and is in my opinion far better than changing pedal at the quaver rests.

As a further note, since writing this post I have now published additional resources on the Online Academy  featuring a more detailed analysis of the pedal in this work, a video walk-through as part of my series of guides to the ABRSM syllabus. These resources are also available as a standalone Annotated Study Edition via our eBook store.


Pedal in Bach: Yes or No?

The subject of pedal in the music of Bach always arouses keen debate. Ought pianists to steer clear of it and control everything by the fingers, or is it possible to use a bit of pedal?

If I play Bach on a small piano in a furnished drawing room with a thick carpet, I might well need touches of pedal to help my sound. If I play the same work on a concert grand in a large church with a lot of acoustic reverberation, the building itself would add a certain amount of resonance without my having to do anything. There would be a lustrous halo around my sound, and I might not need to touch the pedal at all. If the acoustical resonance was excessive, I would probably find myself slowing down the tempo and sharpening up my articulation a bit too, to preserve clarity. Nothing is cast in stone, we always need to adapt depending on our surroundings.

Some pianists (who should know better) state that the harpsichord does not have dampers. Of course it does, or finger pedalling would not be possible (more about this in a moment). It is true that none of Bach’s keyboard instruments had a sustaining device, but piano sound without pedal tends to be dry and boring. Short shallow dabs of pedal can add welcome colour and resonance, but of course this has to be done well or we risk ruining the music.

This helpful video gives a basic overview of the harpsichord action.

Finger Pedalling

Foreign to many pianists, the technique of holding onto notes beyond their written duration is an integral part of harpsichord and fortepiano technique. Before you lurch for your pedal, consider whether you can add resonance by hand. I have written about this subject before; I can also direct you to this video I made for Pianist Magazine.

The Sustaining Pedal

When I played for András Schiff in the early 1980’s he did not complain about my use of pedal in Bach, so I suppose I must have been doing it unobtrusively enough for it not to bother him. Later, Schiff went through a period of not using the pedal in his own playing, which worked extremely well for him. I see he has come back to using it again. I think there is an important point to make here. Schiff is one of our greatest pianists and musicians, playing (magnificently) the very best pianos in the very best concert halls in the world. Most of us would find it extremely difficult to engage an audience if we avoided the pedal. The maestro wrote a short essay on the subject in May, 2012, published on the Vancouver Recital Society’s blog. It makes fascinating reading. In case you missed his monumental performance of the entire Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, from last year’s Proms, here is a sample.

Murray Perahia became obsessed with Bach’s music when an injury put his career on hold for a while. “It took me many years to find my voice in Bach,” he admits. It is crucial “not to imitate a harpsichord, to play freely and yet not romantically, because that’s not part of the spirit of the music. If tonal colouring can enlighten the music, it should be used so that the listener gets what’s underneath the notes when he’s listening to a piece. You can use a certain amount of pedalling – not overdone – because that’s part of the piano.” In this video of a live performance of the fourth French Suite, we can clearly see his foot connecting with the pedal (wait for the subtitles to disappear) and on the repeat we get a good view of the dampers in action.

Celebrated Bach pianist, Angela Hewitt, has reached a similar conclusion:

The secret is to figure it out with the fingers first – is to do all the articulation, all legato, whatever you want to do, do it all with the fingers first and then bring in the pedal if there’s something you really can’t join and want to have joined. That’s the secret, I think, to use it only when required. How beautiful it can sound without pedal in the B flat minor. It’s very difficult to do and takes great, great control. 

In a drier hall, I would use a little bit more pedal, but never to blur a passage. For instance, at the end of Book One, the big B minor fugue, I might use it on every sixteenth note. I would pedal each note to give it a bit more resonance.

Angela Hewitt

I notice a general tendency among students when they play Bach, a certain reluctance to play the music expressively and to take ownership of it. It is as though they are scared to do it wrongly, so they present it somewhat drily, devoid of dynamics, colour, inspiration – and love. Rather than embracing the music and making it their own, it is as though the music existed under a glass case in some hallowed museum. You can look but you can’t touch!

There are those who believe that Bach should not be played with such dynamic variation because this was not possible on the harpsichord. However, several of Bach’s keyboard concertos were transcribed for violin and for oboe; the composer himself transcribed these compositions so they could be played not just on the harpsichord but also on instruments capable of adjusting dynamics and lyrical phrasing. That should make it obvious that he would be happy if his keyboard music were played on a keyboard capable of more lyrical and dynamic expression as well. It’s incredibly shortsighted and unimaginative to believe that this is not the case – and Bach himself was hardly shortsighted and unimaginative!

Mark Ainley

When it comes to pedal my advice is to use it sparingly and lightly (pedalling shallowly so that the dampers barely leave the strings). If we avoid using pedal to make legato connections, and take care not to blur the ornaments, discreet pedalling will add some welcome resonance and improve our sound. I do most of my practising of Bach’s music deliberately without pedal and then avail myself of it in performance.

The trick is to think of the pedal like seasoning in cooking – vital in bringing out and blending the flavours of the food. However, we wouldn’t want to take our first mouthful and exclaim: “Ah, salt!”.


Some years ago I wrote a series of four fairly detailed blog posts under the umbrella title The Baroque Urtext Score. They cover various aspects of style and performance practice that I hope are helpful for the pianist who may be confused as to what’s possible, and what’s permissible.

The Baroque Urtext Score: A User’s Guide (click here)

The Baroque Urtext Score: Dynamics (click here)

The Baroque Urtext Score: Articulation (click here)

The Baroque Urtext Score: Tempo and Rhythm (click here)