Continuing our celebration of 40 years of Keyboard, we'll present some of our old -- but still very relevant -- lessons for our Weekend Chops Builder exercises. Enjoy.
I would like to mention a few points (one could write books) in connection with pedaling. The Russian school of pedaling that I was taught claims ten (count them, ten) levels of the damper pedal! This, of course, assumes a fixed standard of perfectly regulated dampers that come down evenly and together.
For experimenting with pedal levels, play a low note, let's say an E, rather strongly, with the damper pedal completely depressed. While keeping the pedal down, play a descending E major scale with the right hand, about mf, starting here (see accompanying scan for the notes and graphics).
You will observe a clouding of the descending notes. Now play the same thing again with the damper pedal depressed only a quarter, or if possible an eighth, of the way. Notice how the bass E rings through the one-eighth-depressed pedal while the notes of the right hand pass clearly.
For maximum control, the pedal must always be played between the ball of the foot and the tip of the toes (see graphic).
Furthermore, the foot must never leave the pedal. When the foot is properly positioned, you may learn to rely for pedaling more on your toes than on the whole foot.
A newspaper critic once came to my New York apartment to interview me, and when I brought him into my studio, which I had not bothered to straighten up before his arrival, he immediately noticed the several pairs of shoes on either side of the pedals. His curiosity was aroused, so I simply told him about being able to control the pedal better with the bare foot. Typically for the sensationalist aspects of newspaper writing, the article that he wrote bore a headline that referred to me as a barefoot pianist. Letters and calls started coming in from custom shoe manufacturers offering to design a sock-like concert shoe! I would only recommend that you find a shoe with a thin sole.
To add to the clarity of right-hand lines, experiment with fluttering the pedal rapidly, unrelated to any rhythm in the piece, without allowing the pedal to completely clear. Fractional pedaling and pedal fluttering can be of infinite value when we come upon those Chopin Nocturnes that are marked with pedal indications throughout whole measures while a singing line moves on top.
Also, we must learn to balance voices in relation to pedaling. Consider, for example, the opening of the slow movement of the Beethoven Third Piano Concerto (see scan).
The pedal is to be held throughout the entire statement of the theme! Try, while depressing the damper pedal about one-eighth, to voice the chords so that only the top line of the right hand is heard distinctly above the other voices.
You will be amazed to hear that pedaling throughout is not as impossible as you might have thought. If the sound becomes too muddy, you have the option at any time to flutter, or even clear, the pedal. After all, the hands are holding the notes.
After you have experimented with this light pedal, go one step further. Think about all those Mozart and Haydn sonatas that have quickly moving melodic lines in the right hand while the left plays a simple Alberti bass figure. We must learn to find the very lightest level of pedal that will simply add to the overtone glow of the sound without clouding the melodic line. Find such a passage and practice it with a full damper pedal depression, then less, then as little as possible. If you learn to keep this very thin level of pedal in such passages, holding open the option of completely clearing the pedal at any moment, you will suddenly find a radiance of sound in passages that you would have assumed were impossible to pedal.
Always make certain, too, when employing the syncopated pedal (see scan for the notes) that the pedal is depressed after the notes have been played (hence the name syncopated pedal).
The pedal has been referred to as "the soul of the piano." If you take the pedal seriously, you will discover wondrous things.