Zee Ped-ALL … Take zee foot off zee PedALL

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Get zee foot off zee ped-all   … Zee Ped-ALL   …  Too much Ped-ALL …

In over a decade of studying music, under a panoply of instructors, ranging from my first gentle and encouraging teacher, to the dynamic and often quite intimidating professors at the Québec Conservatoire and finally Juilliard,  it is remarkable that virtually no detailed instructions on actually using the pedal were ever offered.

But most of the teachers did object ( quite frequently) to my apparently indiscriminate overuse of that feature. The pedal was my Waterloo and virtually all of my teachers at one time or another accused me of drowning the music in overlapping overtones sustained by my foot wedged firmly on that pedal.

With Chopin or any of the Romantic composers, I could get away without too many negative responses, but I was in deep trouble when I launched into anything by Bach or Scarlatti.  Finally in deference to my teachers and to my favorite pianist of the time … Glenn Gould … I eschewed it completely for any music written earlier than about 1750.  After a year’s study with the eminent harpsichordist, Kenneth Gilbert, I felt quite secure in dropping the pedal entirely when confronted with a piano and began lightly pecking at the notes like a fussy bird as I tried to replicate the style of the harpsichord on the modern piano.   With varying degrees of success.   Gould managed it considerably better than I did.

When I graduated from Juilliard, I was firmly entrenched in the Baroque era and rarely thought about that shiny acoustic tool lurking under my right foot.   I tapped at it occasionally when I had a particularly large sustained note which my small hands couldn’t adequately embrace.   But that was it.

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Only many years later, when I returned to North America after a hiatus of some twenty years in India, did I reacquaint myself with that pedal.  And only by necessity,  as I began teaching piano in Montreal.

I suddenly realized how very little I knew about the pedal and how to effectively operate it.  And even though there were two and often three pedals on the various makes and models of pianos, I knew only the barest basics.   The right hand pedal was the “sustain”pedal and was used to keep the notes reverberating even if you removed your fingers from them while the left hand pedal was to “soften” the tone of the piano.  I only used that one when I decided to practice in my townhouse after midnight.  But the middle one was “mysterious”.   No one seemed to know why it was there.   Someone suggested it was to give a “little authority” to the more expensive grand pianos.   And that was about as much information as was commonly bruited.

pedal piano

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After delving into the history of the pedal, its mechanics and the specific use for all three pedals I finally located a complex explanation of how the middle pedal could be used to hold down “selected” notes in a passage, but only if you employed it with nanosecond accuracy.   Obviously not an option for most pianists at the level I was teaching.   So I decided I would ignore that middle pedal and  would  deal only briefly with the soft left pedal while concentrating on the sustain right hand one.

But even that proved to be difficult.   As a young budding pianist,  I had been blithely unaware of my foot lolling on that pedal as I drifted into my own ecstatic world of sound.  The chords overlapped, the volume grew, the overtones merged and melded into a cacophony of noise which merely thrilled me.   The louder, the better.   Now as my students progressed and began to play the early classics, I could see they were falling into the same state of blurred bliss that had provoked so many of my teachers to scream …” Zee ped-ALL  … too much Ped-ALL …

Something had to be done.   I would have to learn precisely how to operate this feature and how to explain that process to my young students.  Luckily,  the solution proved to be incredibly easy.   A simple use of one foot action and one word nailed the problem perfectly.

I began with the C scale, instructing the student to  play very slowly and to move his foot up and down ON each note.  Predictably many students began by lifting their foot right off the floor and pouncing on the pedal.  So that’s when I introduced  “wrinkle your ankle.”

Put your heel down firmly and tap your toes.    Notice how the skin wrinkles on the front of your foot as you do this.   Now tap your toes on the floor several times slowly  and feel your ankle wrinkling.

wrinkle ankle

Then … and this is the trick … you tap up and down in ONE motion.   Originally I instructed the student “up down … up down”   and this is NOT the way to master the quickness and accuracy of good pedalling.  Because most people pause on the up motion .   You must “move”.   To be sure, your foot IS going up and down, but the two motions must be combined into the single word … MOVE.

The student is then instructed to sit with his heel on the floor and to “MOVE” very quickly in ONE motion as the teacher calls out “Move”.    I would bark out the command several times before transferring the action to the pedal itself.

Then the student plays the scale very slowly as the teacher shouts “Move” on each note.   The scale MUST be played slowly.   Then the teacher varies the tempo, making the student hold some notes longer than others before being told to “Move” on the next note.    The student must become comfortable with the fact that for the most part the foot will be on the pedal … and only lifted at the exact moment the next note is played.

Unfortunately a lot of music is printed with misleading and  incorrect pedal notations.  Here are two examples.   By lifting the pedal before the note  … and then coming down on it, there will be a noticeable gap    Do NOT pedal like this …

bad pedalling

Technically the foot moves UP at the moment the next note is played  …. but it comes down SO quickly that there is NO gap.    This  notation is visually accurate but unfortunately isn’t as commonly used.

pedalling

But it IS  the correct and easily understood notation and guarantees the precision so essential to a fine piano performance.  Remember that each pedal “change” occurs ON the note with a swift up and down movement.   The beauty of this technique is that it becomes so very natural.   I have seen young student playing with perfect pedalling and being totally unaware that they’re doing it.   It becomes as easy and as unconscsious as breathing.

♥  Note:    This is the basic pedal technique for pedalling and it is applicable to most piano music.   However there are variants and combinations of pedals for extra refinement.  But for most students familiarity with this technique will be a good foundation.

♥ Note:   This excellent method MUST be used in conjunction with the student’s own ear.   No matter how skilled his pedalling technique may be, if he’s not aware of the SOUND of overlapping notes and is wallowing in volume  … all his pedalling skills will be for naught.

♥  The Happy Professor’s confession   …

One of  my professors was so exasperated with my excessive use of the pedal that she presented me with the score of Debussy’s Cathedral Engloutie … a signature impressionist piece in which one could simply leave the  foot on the pedal from first page to last, since the composer was musically describing a cathedral at the bottom of an ocean where the tides occasionally pushed its great bell to emit a sonorous peal. 

I loved it.

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5 Responses to Zee Ped-ALL … Take zee foot off zee PedALL

  1. Darrell Tomkins says:

    I love the way you make something like pedaling SO entertaining! Also I learned something new about the middle peddle. I actually tested it out after 60 years of playing the piano with only the left and the right peddles. It works just as you describe. Thanks, my Swami Suchabanana

  2. Guestt says:

    Find any later video of Gould that shows the inside of the piano or his feet and he uses the pedal quite a bit. In many songs he taps it to a certain beat which may or may not even be the beat of the song he is playing. If I had to guess it’s to counteract his unique fingering and “floating hands” especially during fast passages

    • nikkitytom says:

      Actually Gould made his first recording of the Goldberg’s in 1955 … and that recording became my obsession. His later recording ( 1981 ) although it met with much public approval, to my mind was a disappointment. I loved his earlier wotk which drew largely on harpsichord technique and was relatively free of obvious pedalling. As a harpsichordist/pianist …. I admit to a certain bias here.
      But I understand that Gould himself preferred his later work. And that later work did indeed include much more pedalling and often extremely slow tempos … even a more “romanticized” approach.

      • Ksenia says:

        He said in an interview he sometimes thought of pedaling a certain line to resemble a string section, such as cellos in the left hand. On the subject of Gould, what do you think he would have put in his famous tape that he never made of “all you need to know about actual piano technique in 45 minutes.” Might make an interesting blog post. Based on your experience, can you sum up the essentials like that to make it a little easier for adults who are learning?

  3. Belinda Butler says:

    I seem to always find great teaching gold nuggets in your posts and this is no exception. I started using the ankle wrinkles with my students and they get it the first time.

    And thank you SO MUCH for emphasizing the importance of pedaling especially the importance of listening. It is not something really taught and as you mention, the teaching in modern books is severely lacking. Use of the word “move” is great.

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