Virtuosic Pedalling – Practising the Piano

The subject of pedalling emerged as one of the most sought after topics amongst my readers in surveys I ran prior to the launch of the Online Academy. Therefore I decided to create a substantial video demonstration series on pedalling for the Online Academy. I’ve just added an additional video, Pedalling According to Basses which brings the series to a total of seven. I’ll be adding further videos one by one on an ongoing basis.

The pedal markings that have become standardised in our scores seem to cause quite a lot of confusion. The “Ped” sign to indicate where the pedal goes down and the “*” sign to show the release is an approximate and often arbitrary notation; the release often strikes me as having more to do with the whimsy or practical considerations of the typesetter of the particular edition we are using. With this notation it would appear there should be a small gap after the release before the foot goes down again, implying a direct pedal rather than a legato pedal. If we read Chopin’s pedal marks according to the letter, we will be using direct pedals. But are we to assume that a pianist of the calibre of Chopin, say, never used legato pedalling – despite the less efficient damper system on the pianos of his day? We tend to think that legato pedalling was invented by Anton Rubinstein, but is Czerny describing it in 1839?

“The quitting and resuming the pedal must be managed with the utmost rapidity, not to leave any perceptible chasm or interstice between the chords; and must take place strictly with the first note of each chord…The rapidly leaving and resuming the pedal must be practiced…till such passages…sound as if the pedal was held down without interruption.” – Carl Czerny, Complete Theoretical and Practical Piano Forte School, op. 500, 3 vols., trans. J. A. Hamilton (London: Cocks, 1839), vol. 3, 62.

The sustaining pedal is not like a switch that is either on or off. We are able to control the resonance we are after depending on how deeply we depress our foot, and how we adjust the pedal once it is there. No system of pedal notation can ever embrace all the subtleties of right foot activity, especially the use of fractional pedals (how far down our foot goes) or flutter (vibrating) pedals. Arthur Whiting experimented with a system of pedal notation in his Schirmer editions of Brahms and while it is an interesting concept, it can never take into account the individual piano, the acoustical space or our own personal taste and concept of sound. No wonder it never caught on.

Schirmer's Library of Musical Classics, Vol. 1347
Schirmer’s Library of Musical Classics, Vol. 1347

The Ten Levels of Pedal

Founders of the Juilliard piano department, Josef and Rosina Lhévinne, used to speak of ten levels of pedal. In level 1 (the pedal only fractionally depressed) the dampers are barely lifted away from the strings, giving the least resonance – a sort of halo around the sound. Level 10 (the dampers fully away from strings) offers maximum resonance. There are some places where the pedalling is more obviously up then down, but I find for much of the time (depending on the music I am playing, naturally) I might dance between levels 1 and 5, my foot having a life of its own and completely impossible to mark this in my score.

Two Experiments

1. To experience the greater sustaining power of the strings in the lower registers:

  • Foot fully down
  • Play a full chord and release the hands
  • Change the pedal very quickly

You’ll hear that the pedal change didn’t completely clear the sound, and that the lower notes tend to survive the change better than the upper notes. Romantic piano composers capitalise on the fact that we can preserve basses and clear the worst of the dissonance above either by changing the pedal very quickly or by fluttering the foot (often preferable). Thus we can have full pedal changes on main basses, and adjustments in between.

2. Finding the sweet spot:

  • Foot fully down
  • Play a full chord and release the hands
  • Begin to lift the pedal very slowly and very gradually to the place where you start to notice the resonance thinning out

The dampers will be coming into close contact with the strings at this point – enough to thin out the sound but still leaving us with sustaining and resonating power. This is the sweet spot we need to footmark. If you’ve not experimented with fractional pedalling before, like any new skill it is going to feel clumsy and awkward to start with. But work at it, footwork is a vital (and often undeveloped) area of piano playing and will make an enormous difference to your sound.

Chopin: Ballade in G Minor (Opening)

The video below is an extract from Video 7 in my series on pedalling for the Online Academy. I wanted to find a way to show how the dampers behave in real playing, so rather than focus a camera on my foot (not very illuminating) I decided to rig up a GoPro sports camera close to the pin block, pointing directly at the dampers. I experimented with rubber bands to hold it in place, and even though it tends to have a life of its own, I think I managed to capture some footage (no pun intended) of the damper activity involved in artistic pedalling. I call it my “Dampercam”.

Let’s see how all of this might work in the opening bars of the G minor Ballade. I started with my foot fully down before I played the first notes – for maximum and instant resonance. Rather than making any sudden or noticeable changes as I climbed up through the registers, I went for a slow, gradual pedal release. This allowed me to thin out the resonance, and create a soundscape from dark to light. The alternative is to cut it up into short phrases, changing pedal on the main beats. While some players might prefer to do it that way, I find it rather choppy. But remember – as in so many areas of piano playing, pedalling is often a personal choice and we do what we need to do to realise our vision of the music we play.

If you’d like to watch the rest of the video then you can do so by registering with the Online Academy for free. The first video in the pedalling series can be viewed here without registration and I’ve also written an earlier post on pedalling called Fancy Footwork that may be of interest.

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