Piano Pedal

A Blessing in Disguise!

My piano’s right pedal broke the other day. The piano pedal didn’t break off or anything; it just got disconnected. Since it seems all the piano technicians in Vienna have a several-week waiting list, I was determined to take matters into my own hands…

That turned out to be futile. I may be able to do push-ups on my fingertips (okay, not that many), but no amount of human strength could loosen the large screw holding the piano pedal in place!

So I’ve been practicing without the sustain pedal. It’s turned out to be so much of a blessing that I’d like to recommend it to all key-notes readers.

I’ve forced students to play whole pieces without the pedal, since many of us don’t realize just how much we rely on it. The right pedal is there for resonance, and it is there to sustain tones that the fingers cannot. When the fingers are able to sustain the sound, in general they ought to do so. (The exception is when it would be so awkward it would affect the sound.)

It’s a very bad idea to make a habit out of playing legato with the right foot rather than with the fingers. For starters, you never know when the pedal will break…. Seriously, once my teacher Paul Badura-Skoda was playing a Chopin concerto in Sweden, and since his flight arrived late the only opportunity he had to try out the piano was during the orchestra’s introductory tutti, when he was already onstage. To his horror he discovered that the right pedal was broken, so he crawled under the piano to try to fix it while the orchestra was playing! (They had to stop the performance and call in the technician.)

Beyond that, it’s important to understand that the piano pedals are designed in part for special effects. They’re not there to do the work your fingers should be doing. What’s more, releasing a finger before playing the next note with another finger interrupts the musical thought process, and most of the time it affects the sound of the next note.

This is one of the mysteries of piano tone production, in fact. Try this as an exercise: play middle C with the middle finger of your right hand, hold it, and also press and hold the right pedal. Now play the B below it with your index finger, and release the pedal when you do so. Since this is a two-note slur, the B should be softer. (In fact, it should come in at exactly the level that the C faded to when you played the B, but that’s an exercise in dynamics.)

Now try playing middle C again with that same finger, and this time hold that sound with the right pedal, letting go of the key. Play the B with your index finger, and try to match the sounds so that the two exercises sound identical.

Do they? I’m guessing they don’t… though there’s no reason they shouldn’t sound the same, at least as far as the piano itself is concerned. Holding a key down does nothing to influence the sound of that note – you already played that key, and the hammer has already left the string – yet whether or not you hold that key can very well influence the next sound! This is one of the most essential principles of tone production at the piano.

The lesson to be learned here is that we should always try to physically connect notes within a (legato) musical idea. In other words, if notes are supposed to be connected, then actually try to connect them physically with your hand. There is a psychological factor at work here as well: the mind will concentrate on musical motives when we physically connect the notes with our hands. By contrast, the mind tends to lose focus when we let go of the key in between notes of a motive. In other words, we stop listening.

This is why a broken piano pedal has been a blessing in disguise. Even before the incident, I very often practiced without pedal, as this has a number of advantages. In addition to the aforementioned benefit of forcing us to physically connect notes within musical motives, it allows us to notice the precise articulation of each note. Are we articulating notes in a motive identically? Do we want to vary the articulation? If so, how exactly? Practicing without pedal allows us to focus on such matters.

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