5 top tips for using the una corda
by Melanie Spanswick
The una corda, or the pedal to the far left on a grand piano and the left pedal on an upright, is a useful way to change the piano’s sound. Rather like the sustaining pedal, the una corda is multi-layered. It’s possible to take the pedal down various degrees in order to achieve a profusion of divergent sounds. This will be more challenging on an upright piano, as the una corda on these instruments tends to just make the overall effect softer, but on a grand, the changes are effective yet understated.
1. When una corda (or UC) is marked in the score, depress the left pedal, lifting it when you see the marking, Tre corde (or TC, meaning three strings): Due corde is another direction, and this refers to the left pedal being partly depressed. On a grand piano, the keyboard moves, or shifts, to the left when the una corda is depressed. This is because the hammer strikes one string less than usual, hence the name, una corda, or one string. On the upright piano, the left pedal moves the hammers closer to the strings (as opposed to shifting them), shortening the stroke and reducing the sound but not really changing the timbre, and therefore the keyboard does not move. If UC is not already written in a score by the composer, you may consider adding the una corda to selected passages.
2. To become accustomed to the left pedal, aim to experiment with a few scales. Start by putting your heel firmly on the floor with your body weight behind it. Then prepare to play the pedal with the ball (or top of the ball) of your foot, towards the big toe. When depressing the pedal, observe just how little movement is necessary for the sound to change, usually from a distinctive, brilliant tone to a gradually softer, more muted one. You could try touching the pedal lightly at first, graduating to full use of the pedal, from the top to bottom of a four-octave scale.
3. Practise taking the una corda pedal down and then raising it varying degrees, concentrating on the colour and, probably to a lesser extent, the volume change. This can be a both interesting and helpful exercise. On some pianos, it can change the sound from quite penetrating or percussive, to a warmer, richer hue.
4. A useful suggestion for the use of the una corda includes employing it for accompaniment figures. This involves depressing the pedal where an accompaniment figure occurs (often in the left hand), and then raising the pedal for the melody notes. Considerable skill is required for this exercise, which should ideally be practised with exact application; the overall semblance is one of a hazy, subtle, perhaps slightly unfocused sound for the accompaniment figures, with a brighter, fuller, more colourful melody.
5. Finally, try using the una corda to add a muted sonority to trills and ornaments; particularly long trills in higher registers on the keyboard. If the left pedal is applied towards the end of a fast trill, it can give the ornament a distinctly less sonorous tone.
Application of the una corda depends entirely on the context of the music. Any pedal employment should be carefully considered, but, if used sparingly, it can add tremendous impact to a performance.
© Erica Worth. Taken at Steinway Hall, London
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