When I was a young girl and taking piano lessons, I was told about the three pedals on my piano: the loud one, the medium one, and the soft one – more like a Goldilocks story than good music theory. I almost exclusively used the right pedal, known officially as the “damper” or “sustaining” pedal. Once in a blue moon, I used the soft pedal, formally known as the “una corda” pedal. I never used the middle pedal.
I religiously followed the pedal marks in my music, and that was that. Or at least it was for many years until I took lessons as an adult where I found out some deeper knowledge that floored me.
For some lucky people, there are only two pedals to contend with; the middle pedal is missing! No, this is not a significant loss as the middle pedal is rarely used while playing. The middle pedal – when it is present – may be what is formally known as the “sostenuto” pedal. Unlike the damper pedal, an advanced pianist might choose to sustain not every note but only depressed notes. Instead of a sostenuto pedal on some pianos, the middle pedal is more of a muting pedal so people can practice in peace without neighbors pounding on the wall. Of course, if your neighbors pound a lot, you may want to replace your acoustic with a digital piano!
Obvious, you say! Many students step on the pedal at the beginning of a piece, even before one note has been played. This is not correct. If there is a pedal mark, play your first note, put the pedal down, and hold it down until there is a mark to lift it. When I was little, I was told that the goal was not to make a ton of noise while pedaling (no elephant sounds) and to put it back down as quickly as possible. That is not correct! If you bring the pedal up, make sure you play a new note before putting the pedal back down. Otherwise, you are just pedaling air.
Sometimes, it is tough to play softly when you are playing bass notes. Even if there are no special pedal markings, consider using the soft pedal in that situation. Note that it is not necessary to pedal up and down with the soft pedal frequently. It will not cause a blur of muddled notes like the damper pedal when it is held down too long. Make sure you play the soft pedal with your left foot!
One of my favorite ways to add some additional contrast to a piece is to pedal with the damper pedal while holding down the soft pedal. When a piece changes to “pp” or “ppp,” but you still must pedal, it is challenging to play that softly – especially in the bass. If you experiment with using two pedals at once, you will be amazed at the beautiful result.
Almost every piano student has been guilty of this at one time or another. Maybe it is because you have to reach octaves very quickly (or even nine notes at a time – so uncomfortable!) and want to cover up your choppiness. Maybe it is because there are just too many pedaling marks, and you are starting to rebel. One thing I can guarantee – it is not because you like the sound! The sound of overpedaling is like all the sounds of the lawnmowers and leaf blowers going at once on a weekend morning – a cacophony of sounds. All of the melody is lost as the old notes refuse to go away.
As if ordinary pedaling isn’t confusing enough. There is also quarter-pedaling. If you can figure out where to press down to find precisely one-half, you get my vote. In reality, each piano is different. A half-pedal may not exactly correspond to pressing the pedal down halfway. However, you should experiment where you want to use a lighter pedal sound. Also, my students ask why composers wrote in staccato with pedal, a bit of a quandary. If you are caught in this web, you can press lightly on the damper pedal and still get a bit of a staccato effect. Another problem solved!
The pedal and I are no longer friendly. When taking lessons at a very intense music school in the recent past, my instructor one day crawled down to the floor and started manually pedaling my foot up and down. I wasn’t sure if I would come back the following week after I had a crying jag. Miraculously, either my pedaling skills improved after that “low” point, or my instructor gave up on me completely.
Put your new-found knowledge to work! With Piano Marvel's extensive library of piano sheet music available at your fingertips, try experimenting with "those other pedals"--the una corda and the sostenuto--to enhance your playing and add depth and subtlety to your performances that will leave your audience wondering how you did that!