Pedalling will always be a hot topic. Melanie Spanswick gives some advice on how not to over-pedal.
The sustaining or right pedal can sometimes become an addiction. As an adjudicator, I have heard it being used or ‘ridden’ (as some say!) with alarming alacrity. From the very first note of a piece through to the final chord, students often tend to deploy a heavy right foot as though operating a car accelerator. However, if used with a little restraint, it can add a wonderful resonance and warmth to the overall piano sound. Here are a few ideas to think about when honing pedalling skills:
1. A little sustaining pedal goes a long way
Practise playing your piece through without any pedal at all for a while. This will secure a clearer interpretation and will allow you to become aware of legato lines, crisp articulation, and more importantly, assess your legato fingering. If you’ve already been pedalling a piece for a while, it can be a shock to hear clipped melodies (and accompaniment figures) on removing the pedal. Unless your piece is full of large intervals or leaps which are impossible to join via the fingers, aim to use your fingers to create legato as opposed to employing the right pedal.
2. The most important tool for good pedalling is good listening
This may be done away from the keyboard at first, hearing a work in your head, and then being able to decide where the sustaining pedal might ‘add’ to the sound of a particular passage. Too much pedal can result in unclear harmony and obscured passagework. You may need to experiment widely for the desired effect, and become accustomed to releasing the pedal much more often than previously.
3. The amount of pedal necessary in any piece will change depending on the piano and a venue’s acoustic
Therefore, assume an open mind when deciding how long to keep the pedal depressed in a particular bar or passage. It can even be a good idea to incorporate the use of the pedal in different ways during practice sessions, with the foot depressed for a fraction longer (or perhaps, shorter) than marked on the score. Again, let your ear be the guide.
4. Another beneficial skill is the use of partial pedalling
Half-pedalling, half-damping, and flutter (surface or vibrato) pedalling all involve the similar technique of only depressing the pedal, and therefore the foot, a fraction, sometimes as little as an eighth of an inch (depending on the piano). Flutter pedalling is the most widely used, where the foot rapidly oscillates up and down, constantly clearing the sound. The art of using this technique will involve engaging the pedal quietly, literally shaking the foot, avoiding any damper noise. Such application will be dependent on the style of music and your ear.
5. Occasionally, the sustaining pedal can be replaced by finger pedalling
In some genres, particularly Baroque, it can be beneficial to ‘overlap’ the fingers i.e. keep the keys depressed for longer than written in the score, so the sound runs over into that of some succeeding notes. This offers a similar sustained effect to the right pedal. It is, however, easier to control the release of sound this way, and it generally provides less ‘smudging’ than the sustaining pedal.