Piano Pedalling Techniques – From Beginner to Advanced
If you are a pianist who is just starting out or are an intermediate then you will have come across this situation where you listen to someone play and it just sounds exquisite but once you try to replicate the same piece of music, it sounds nowhere close to what you had heard. This is often down to the use of the piano pedals. They might look mundane but at the feet of a skilled pianist, they can create magic. It is, however, one aspect of piano playing that is often ignored. Mastering piano pedalling can separate you from the hordes of soulless pianists out there. It is the little things that gives music life and separates the great musicians from the ordinary ones.
The pedals on a piano might not seem like much but can become one of the biggest tool in your arsenal if you want to take your piano playing to the next level. Today we will explore the various techniques involved in the usage of pedals ranging from the basic to the advanced. These techniques are especially helpful if you have a plateau in your journey as a musician and would like to kick things up a notch.
Before we begin, it is necessary to identify the pedals. Most modern pianos have two. Digital pianos usually have one and some older pianos and grand pianos might have three but we won’t look at the third one as it is not that useful or readily available.
- Sustain pedal: This is the pedal that will be to your right. It is also known as the damper pedal and is the more important and useful of the two. The name itself is pretty self-explanatory. It works by increasing the time period for which a certain note can be heard. By varying how much you press down on the sustain pedal, you can bring the music to life.
- Soft pedal: This is the pedal that will be to your left. It has a somewhat opposite effect to the sustain pedal and makes the notes softer and sound more distant.
In pianos with three pedals, these two will be on the right and left as described above with an extra pedal in the middle that is very rarely used.
Let us now take a look at the various basic techniques:
- The delayed pedaling: This is primarily used to connect two notes or chords together. If you want the various parts of the music to flow into each other, then this is the technique to employ. It is very simple and is all about the timing of applying the sustain pedal. Say there are two parts that you want to string together. The notes of the first part are played but before the key is released the pedal is engaged and then the keys are released. This causes the first part to ring out a little longer and then when you play the second part, it will appear like the two are connected. This is one of the first pedal techniques that people learn and is one of the easiest two.
The sequence of this technique is as follows
Press keys – Engage pedal – Release Keys – Release pedal – Press Keys. This technique is also known as the syncopated pedal or retarded pedal.
- The simultaneous pedal: This one is a bit more tricky to use as you will have to hit the keys and the sustain pedal at the exact moment. This gives that particular part of the composition a more pronounced feel and is used when you want a certain section of the music to really stand out. This technique is also known as the direct pedal or rhythmic pedal.
- The preliminary pedal: This is perhaps the easiest of all the basic techniques and also the one that is used most sparingly. The sustain pedal is engaged first and then the notes are hit. This gives the part a dreamy feel and can be used when you want to play a mellow part or a very soft part just after hitting a crescendo.
The more advanced techniques:
- Legato pedal: An extension of the delayed pedaling, the only difference being in how the second note is played. Begin by playing the first part and then engaging the pedal. Release the keys. You have to time yourself in such a way that as soon as you start to press the second note, you should begin disengaging the pedal in such a way that exactly when the key is completely depressed, the pedal is also completely disengaged. This gives the music a sense of being alive and adds a fluidity to the flow of the notes.
- Articulation pedal: This is another technique that is in many ways similar to the delayed pedaling technique but requires a bit more dexterity. The first part is the same. You play a note and then engage the sustain pedal. Then let go off the keys. Then you let go off the pedals but you do not play the next note immediately but wait till the previous note has almost cut off. You will know you are doing it right when there is no discernible gap between the two notes without having them overlap either.
- Overlap pedal: This is used when you deliberately want two notes or chords to overlap with each other. Begin by pressing the keys for the first note or chord and then engage the sustain pedal. Release the keys but leave the pedal engaged and then press the keys for the second note or chord. Then disengage the pedal and release the keys simultaneously. This technique is best used when you want certain parts to merge in such a way that the two start off at different points but come to an end at the same time.
- Half-pedal: This can be done with either pedal and can be used when you do not want a complete sustain or softening of the notes. You have to engage the pedals just enough that the sound begins to shift towards a full sustain or a full softening. Different pianos will have different points at which this will happen and you will have to do a few trial runs to find out the exact “half” point of the pedals.
These are by no means the exhaustive list of techniques but these are the most fundamental ones. Almost every other technique out there is a variant of one of these. Once you have become sufficiently proficient with these you can explore further and invent your own techniques. Experiment with soft pedal using the above techniques and you will soon get an idea of when you need to use which technique.
- Rely more on your ear than your legs. It is natural to think that the leg is controlling the pedal and therefore you need to focus more on how much pressure you are exerting through it. That is the wrong way to approach pedals. Train yourself in such a way that your legs react to what you hear rather than what you feel. This way you can play with the same level of expertise on a variety of different pianos with different setups.
- Focus more on clarity. It is very easy to end up with a muddled sound by employing the pedals. Concentrate on getting a cleaner sound where you can hear exactly what you want rather than something close to what you want.
- Accept that pedals are an important part of playing pianos: The learning curve is a bit steep when it comes to pedals and it is easy to abandon learning how to use them altogether as so many piano players out there do not use pedals. You can join that group if you just want to be able to play something on the piano. If, on the other hand, you want your music to speak to your listeners then you have to grit your teeth and spend the necessary hours mastering each technique.
- Do not overdo it: Once you get the hang of it, it will be very tempting to use the pedals all the time. Avoid that and stick to using them only when the music demands it.
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