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The Sustaining Pedal: When and How to Use It

When talking about various topics related to the technical aspects of piano playing, a lot of time is spent towards addressing the fingers, hands, arms, and the upper body. And rightfully so––without proper fundamentals, one will not be able to produce a nice, consistent tone and navigate effortlessly around the keyboard.

But how do we get to that "next step" in producing that magical, captivating tone?

The sustaining pedal! Let's explore how you can use this tool to elevate your level of playing.

Pedaling 101:

Firstly, there are two general situations when one should use the sustaining pedal:

1) To connect notes (e.g., legato playing) when it is physically not possible

In other words, the sustaining pedal is supposed to be an aid, not a substitute. If you are playing a piece that needs to be smooth and lyrical, such as a Chopin Nocturne, try practicing it without pedal, and insist on using as much finger legato. This way you can see what is the minimum amount of pedal that is needed. Be very critical of yourself. More often than not, you will be surprised with how much your fingers and hands can achieve the desired results!

2) To enhance the sound

One should use the pedal when trying to create a certain effect, like producing a different tone color or sonority. One might use it to have a certain chord resonate a bit more, or to bring a certain texture to the foreground or background. Using pedal in this context can also help convey mood changes within a work.

If you find yourself pedaling for other reasons besides the aforementioned guidelines, strongly reconsider the use of it altogether.

More advanced applications of the sustaining pedal:

1) There are various gradations in pedaling

Think of it like the gas pedal to a car: you never want to fully step all the way down on it, and there are various gradations, or pressure levels, when applying the gas.

The best example to illustrate exactly what I mean is the opening passage from the Prelude of Debussy's Pour le piano (see below). Start at m. 6 and play the excerpt to m. 9 with the foot all the way down so that you can catch the low A in the bass.

Debussy, Pour le piano, Prelude, mm. 4-9

Sounds a bit messy, right?

Now, experiment with using a fraction of the pedal––depressing it ever so slightly down. If the sound begins to blur, lift your foot slightly up, but never completely off, so that you can keep that low bass note. If done properly, you will have effectively shifted the RH sixteenth-notes to the background while bringing the LH melody to the foreground.

If you want to hear a great example of this, check out Claudio Arrau's recording of it here.

2) Pedal with your ears, not with your eyes

I alluded to this in the Debussy example. Your ears will be your best teacher in determining if you have too much or not enough pedal in a certain passage. Often times, I see many students using pedal, simply because "it says so in the music." Firstly, that marking may very well be suggested by the editor, not the composer; and secondly, even if the composer wrote it, keep in mind that the instrument back in his day did not possess a sustaining tone like our modern grand piano––rendering the prescribed use of pedal to be inappropriate. The pedal is such an imaginative and creative tool. I encourage you to explore its endless possibilities!

3) Every pedal is different

One of the main challenges of playing the piano is that every instrument is wildly different. And yes, that includes the pedal. Some pedals are very sensitive, while others might be more difficult to depress––causing the Debussy exercise to be exceedingly difficult. Before your performance, test out the pedal carefully on the recital piano to make sure that there are no surprises.

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