When new students start with me, I always open up the piano and let them see the inside and how it works. Nearly without exception, the part that fascinates them the most is the mechanism for the pedals. They love to play with the pedals, as they can see and hear at the same time the differences depressing and releasing the pedals make.
The two or three pedals on your piano help make your playing dynamic and interesting, helping to provide tonal shading. However, there’s usually a fair bit to learn before the pedal can be introduced; you need to crawl before you can walk. By the time they get to use the pedal, students are usually pretty keen!
Correct use of the pedal involves placing your heel on the floor in front of the pedal so the ball of your foot rests comfortably on the pedal. Angling the ankle downwards should then depress the pedal, while bringing the ankle back up again (gently, or it will ‘clunk’) will release the pedal. Your heel should never leave the floor while pedalling as it is the pivot point. In the same way that playing the keys relies heavily on maintaining a loose, flexible wrist, playing the pedal relies on a flexible and comfortable ankle joint.
Composers use a few different ways to indicate when to depress the pedal, when to release it, and when to make a quick up-down pedal change. The picture below shows the different notations you will regularly see. A notch in the pedal line indicates a quick pedal change; lift your foot enough to allow the pedal to clear, and then quickly press the pedal down again.
Each instrument has its own pedal personality and you will learn the idiosyncrasies of your own over time, just as with the rest of the piano.
The right pedal:
The pedal used most often is the right pedal, called the sustain or damper pedal. It has two main functions:
- Allows the sound to continue after the keys are released.
- Bringing a deeper, richer and more resonant quality to the timbre of the sound.
One thing that pianists tend to overlook is that during the Classical period (the generation of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, or roughly from 1750 to 1820), the sustain pedal was a special effect. Therefore it should be used carefully when playing their music.
The left pedal:
The left pedal is called the una corda or soft pedal.
The main function of the soft pedal is to change the timbre of the sound, making it sound more distant. It can create a hushed atmosphere. Making the sound softer is of secondary importance – you should be able to play pianissimo (very softly) without it.
When the composer wants you to use the soft pedal, you see the indication una corda. Release it when you see the indication tre corda.
Frank Hutchens’s ‘Two Little Birds’ requests at the beginning that both pedals (meaning right and left) are used simultaneously. The soft pedal gives the quiet atmosphere of the woodlands with the birds in the distance, while the sustain pedal provides the gentle, legato sound.
The middle pedal:
This pedal has a different purpose depending on whether you are playing a grand piano or an upright.
- On a traditional grand piano, the middle pedal is known as the sostenuto pedal. It acts as a damper for only the notes your fingers are playing as you depress the pedal. For example, if you play a chord in the bass and then depress the sostenuto pedal, you can then play crisp, staccato notes in the treble but only the bass chord will remain sustained.
- Older upright pianos didn’t normally have a third, middle pedal. For those uprights that do have three, the middle pedal is commonly known as the practice pedal. It mutes all the strings, allowing you to play as normal (including using the other two pedals) but softening the overall sound substantially. There is a notch to the left of the pedal so it can be locked in place. It is great for practising without disturbing your neighbours.
A good ‘pedalling instinct’ is based on knowledge, a very good hearing and mindful practice. This is why it is not used extensively with beginners. They need to develop an understanding of the music and how they play before introducing the pedal to enhance it.
The most important thing about pedalling is to not overuse it. It only takes a little overuse of the sustain pedal for everything to sound blurry. Always ask yourself how using the pedal is going to improve what you are playing.
If you are considering music lessons for your child or for yourself, please contact me to discuss the options. Piano lessons are conducted at my studio in Wallsend, NSW.