Using the pedal comfortably.

Pedalling can be a mysterious aspect of playing the piano.  In my experience, this skill is often ignored in a pianists’ development. Many of my students confess that they were taught little about pedalling beyond the foot travelling all the way down to the floor and up again, and are astounded to hear that the latest Yamaha Disklavier acoustic grand piano can register up to 250 variations of pedal stroke. The demand for information on pedalling is such that John Bloomfield’s one-off presentation on pedalling one year at the Golandsky Institute Summer Symposium developed into five different lectures in subsequent years.

In this blog, I would like to focus on the physical action of putting down the pedal, and illustrate comparisons to playing a piano key using the Taubman Approach. While many of these points may seem obvious, they have appeared either in lessons I have taught or observed, and have been revelatory for the student.

– First of all, the set up needs to be checked, ensuring that the heel is resting down lightly on the floor, and the toes are resting down lightly on the pedal. One common error is for the heel or even the whole leg to lift off the floor while pedalling.

– A younger student may need a mat or pedal extender underneath the foot for it to be able to rest down.

– To find this sensation of making contact without digging or relaxing, the image of standing is often used in Taubman teaching. The foot merely makes contact with the surface; similarly when we pedal, the heel neither digs into the floor, nor pulls away. Similarly, the foot does not relax heavily onto the pedal, making control of the descent difficult.

 – Just as using the fingers alone to play the keys is an isolated movement, similarly pedalling only from the toes is harmful. We need to feel that the toes and part of the “palm” of the foot are touching the pedal.

– The pedal has a lever action, just like the piano key. It is lighter pedalling “out” near the edge, and heavier to depress “in” towards the piano.  Too much of the foot touching the pedal can be compared to unnecessarily playing deep in the black key area, however those with larger feet might find that they need to have their foot quite “in” to avoid the feeling of pedalling only with the toes.

– There is a resonance in the calf when we pedal, but we do not initiate motion from the calf, which creates fatigue and discomfort.

– At no point do toes pull up away from the pedal (the big toe is worth checking here) just as at the piano, the non-playing fingers do not pull up, which creates what Taubman called a dual-muscular pull.

– Pedalling lightly with the mechanism only partially depressed still requires a sense of down. Similarly, when one plays pianissimo there also needs to be a sense of down, rather than the common (and uncomfortable) response of holding up to produce a softer tone.  

– When releasing the pedal, pushing on the bottom is unnecessary and creates tension, as does pushing off the keybed to allow the key to return to its neutral position.  

One very interesting lesson I observed involved Edna Golandsky teaching a student who also played the harp. As she played her Rachmaninov prelude, she complained of discomfort in her shoulders. To my surprise, Edna quickly related the over-pedalled texture to her pain. When playing the harp, she needed to lean back and constantly use her feet to change the pedals to the required pitch. This habit had transferred across to her piano playing. Because her heel was not fully resting on the floor and her weight was balanced backwards, her foot leant too heavily on the pedal,  in an attempt to find security. The rest of her body pulled away from the heavy relaxation on the pedal, creating a sensation of “up” through the whole torso, expressing itself through discomfort in her shoulders. Once she was able to feel her weight through her heels, and to bring the torso to a position of being balanced forward, the discomfort in her shoulders disappeared, and she had much more control over her pedalling. shutterstock_121743268   Those who are interested in the many different degrees and ways of pedalling available to us might like to download the “Three Pedals, Two Feet” lecture here.

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