The Dance of the Dampers

The subtleties of the right pedal are extremely hard to pin down. I can show a student what I am doing with my hands, fingers and arm to produce a particular sound, but when it comes to pedalling I so often find myself asking them to look not at my right foot but rather to stand up and take a peek inside the workings of the instrument and watch the dampers as I play. Instead of a cut and dried “up” then “down” in the manner of marching soldiers, the dampers might often only barely lift away from the strings. The pedal is neither up nor down, my foot (controlled directly by my ear) making incredibly fine adjustments to temper the resonance from a mere tickle to full throttle. This sort of pedalling is impossible to write in the score, there are just too many variables.

“Pedalling cannot be written down. It varies from one instrument to another, from one room, or one hall, to another.” Claude Debussy

Back in the 80s I had a few lessons with Theodore Lettvin, who wrote somewhere in my score of the Chopin Scherzi “1/10,000 of a pedal”. This concept of foot added to the particular scale pattern a fine mist of resonance like water droplets sprayed from an atomiser. Not enough to drench the thing, but enough to moisten it so it could reflect the light. Nobody listening to my playing would detect the presence of my right foot (in this case the very edge of my big toenail), but would somehow notice its absence.

To experience the effect, play a full chord with the pedal fully down and release your hands into the air. As you lift the foot, do so extremely slowly. Listen acutely to the changes in resonance as the foot gets close to the top and the dampers start to graze the strings. This is the place in the pedal we want to footmark. Go there regularly where you wouldn’t normally think to dare, for the shortest of dabs, and appreciate the highlights this brings to your sound. Sometimes the foot hovers around that area, moving a millimeter in both directions rather than changing in a more conventional way. Imagine a texture where you want clarity and yet resonance – such as chunks of the Fantasie-Impromptu. Dabs of pedal of varying length and depth give us the best of both worlds.

The other side of the coin is a certain squeamishness I have noticed about using full pedals when these are called for, because the player is pedalling with their eye and not their ear. By this I mean they see something on the page that seems to preclude pedal, a scale pattern perhaps, or some dissonance or other. They either leave out the pedal or change it way too often. If only they would listen carefully to the result, they would discover that a long pedal is often just what is called for. But the sound has to be layered immaculately for this to sound good. Let’s look at this example, a brief extract from a top melody line (I won’t say what it is from for the moment). Your first assumption will probably be that it doesn’t really need any pedal. Because of the stepwise movement of the line you certainly would not think to hold the pedal down for the whole bar (the marking is Andante, please assume a treble clef and a key signature of C major):

Grieg 1


Now look at the bar complete with its LH, and you will notice a familiar three-layered texture – melody, bass note and a filling of harmony:

Grieg 2

The pedal must be held throughout the entire bar, because the bass B flat supports everything above it and still needs to be alive at the end of the bar. The dissonant effect of the neighbouring notes in the scale melts away when the bass note is added. Under the firmly projected legato cantabile RH, in the LH we need two tonal levels – a firm tenuto bass note and a very soft pp for the throbbing harmony (which will be played inside the keys). Oh, it’s the Grieg Nocturne, by the way!

Surprising as this may seem at first glance, the opening of Rachmaninov’s Second Concerto can absolutely be played without changing the pedal at all, this is the tradition that was passed down to me as some sort of arcane secret:


The reason this works, why the changing harmonies can happily live together in the one pedal is because of the bass F. As is always the case, the presence of a bass note (played firmly enough and held in the pedal) can support all sorts of non-harmonic tones that would otherwise disturb our ear.

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