When to Introduce Using The Pedal (N. Moore)
Found in: Musicality, Pedaling, Technique
Samali D., Western Australia
Could I have some advice on how and when to introduce the pedal correctly with my students?
It’s a potentially contentious issue, but my view is that whereas traditionally the default status of the pedal is usually ‘off’, I suggest reinventing the default position as being ‘on’. At a practical level, this means that from the beginning, students firstly learn to just hold the pedal down–permanently!
Using the pedal should start on the first or second piece – as soon as the student can play Dreams. I start by having them just hold the pedal down. Obviously the sound gets quite ‘muddy’ fairly quickly. I address this in two ways, firstly by having them play slowly (which gives us more time to have some of the sustained sounds dissipate), and secondly, to play very gently (which generally means that there is less ‘volume’ of sound to have to deal with.
It’s not unlike driving a car. As is the case with driving a manual (stick shift), we learn to change gear, quite invisibly, by teaching our ear to be the ‘invisible observer’. The ear hears the mounting tension of the motor, and tells us that it is time to shift to the next gear. Soon after learning how to do this, our ability to change gears happens completely in the background – we are somewhat unconscious about it.
Likewise, when using the pedal, I have found it to be far easier for the students to learn when to ‘clear’ the pedal, as compared to learning when to ‘apply’ it. When the student plays Dreams and Storm in a smooth, musical fashion, is using the pedal, and playing slowly and sensitively enough for me to believe it to be appropriate to add in another thought process, I begin talking to them about occasionally ‘clearing’ the pedal.
Doing this is quite simple. (There are more extensive techniques, but I won’t address these right here and now). I have the student play the first sentence to Dreams, then I have them stop, I ask them to listen to the sounds lingering in the air, then with their hands still holding down the keys (this is important), I ask them to quickly raise and lower the pedal. We talk about the lingering sounds disappearing, and after a few times it becomes clear to them. I ask them to practice playing Dreams during the week, but to be listening to when the sound becomes a little ‘thick’ and ‘muddy’. I tell them that when they notice this, to stop, keep holding down the keys, then quickly raise and depress the pedal
It’s amazing how quickly they discover for themselves how to smoothly and efficiently do this, and integrate it seamlessly into their playing. And it is so much easier than trying to ‘teach’ the traditional, ‘pedal-application’ approach, where the student is following written instructions as to when to apply and release the pedal. The traditional approach may well give the impression of being initially more ‘precise’, but it flounders hopelessly when it comes to allowing students the room to discover the ability to self-generate and establish a personal relationship with the instrument.
P.S. Having said that, although I usually have the students using the pedal with the popular, classical and accompaniment pieces, I usually don’t have them apply the pedal to the Blues pieces until they are quite proficient at the process. The lower register 5ths in the LH, with the ascending and descending thumb, is way too ‘thick’ of a sound, and asks to much of the student too soon.