Senza Pedale – Practising the Piano

I wonder how many of you have embarked on Dry January, perhaps as a New Year’s resolution? The idea is that by abstaining from alcohol for a month you reset your relationship with it by becoming conscious of what you have been doing habitually. Drinking, particularly in UK culture, is often a habit that can go unchecked – until you deliberately intercept it.

What might this have to do with practising the piano?

As I was experimenting with a pedalling solution for the Brahms A minor Intermezzo, op 76 no 7 for last week’s post, I started by trying to make the relevant passage sound as good as possible without any pedal at all – in other words, dry! I wanted my fingers to do as much of the work as possible before adding pedal afterwards. With a little effort I found I could get quite a long way towards making it sound good by hand, and when I finally added the pedal it was like the icing on the cake.

Piano sound without the pedal can be terribly dry, like eating a bowl of cornflakes without the milk. But if we constantly rely on our foot to make our fingers sound good, we can get way too comfortable and complacent about what is actually going on under our hands. The right foot can make us sound amazing, but it also very good at masking finger sins.

While we wouldn’t want to go for a whole month without the pedal, it is a great idea occasionally to practise deliberately without it – as a discipline. When we do this, we might somehow disable the pedal – I am not suggesting anything as drastic as unscrewing the thing from the lyre, but possibly laying something across it (such as a magazine) so that when our foot automatically creeps back there (which it will) it discovers a foreign object and reluctantly retreats.

This is going to work better for some pieces than others. It would be hard to play a Debussy prelude or a Rachmaninov etude convincingly with no pedal when pedal is such an integral part of the sound, but worth trying it out anyway for the rewards it will bring – in the spirit of austerity.

The pedaling in a Haydn Sonata and the pedaling in a Chopin Berceuse are as different as the brush technic that one would find in a pre-Raphælite painting and in a Millet. They represent different epochs and must be treated differently. (Josef Lhévinne)

Think for a moment about the two main functions of the right pedal – to sustain and connect sounds the fingers alone cannot, and to add resonance. I was giving a lesson on the Ravel Sonatine yesterday and my student was taking a number of liberties with his foot. When we took the pedal away, he was surprised at how unrhythmical the clockwork inner part was at the start, and how blurred the edges of the second theme had become (from the a Tempo).

He was horrified to discover that he had been relying on the pedal to create a legato impression of the passage, rather than ensuring the connections were made with the fingers. There was a gap in top line (first violin) between the double dotted crotchet and the semiquaver that follows it, and sloppy connections in the lower voices (perfectly possible to join up with a good fingering). We worked on it for a bit before he discovered there were one or two places where some pedal was necessary for joining (the second violin part of bar 15, for example), so we added a touch of pedal there, just for the connections. After he had made the passage sound as beautiful as possible by hand I allowed him to go back to the pedal. He found he needed much less than he imagined – a shallow touch here and there, that was all. The process had helped him to become much more conscious about what it was he was actually doing with his foot. Having practised a squeaky clean, antiseptic version he was able to hear he had been way overdoing it.

If you would like to find out more about the Online Academy study edition of the Ravel Sonatine – follow this link. The edition contains an Urtext score as well as a fully annotated one, with fingering, pedalling and suggestions for practice. There are detailed footnotes containing practice exercises in score, and QR codes that you can scan at the piano using your phone or tablet for close-up video demonstrations.