Pedalling

Pedalling Chopin’s B minor Prelude

Chopin’s 24 Préludes, op. 28 were composed at a difficult time in the composer’s life. It was the winter of 1838-9, and Chopin and his lover George Sand had decided to visit Majorca for a romantic holiday. He had contracted tuberculosis and, for fear of contamination, none of the local inhabitants would allow them to stay. So they ended up in the abandoned monastery in Valldemossa – miles from anywhere. To make matters worse, Chopin’s piano was held up by customs so he had to rent another, a small upright known as a pianino built by Bauza, a local. To say it was not up to the job would be an understatement, but this unpretentious little instrument ended up with a fascinating history and was later owned by the great Polish harpsichordist, Wanda Landowska. Paul Kildea has written an entertaining and informative book about this piano – Chopin’s Piano – A Journey Through Romanticism  While the Préludes make a magnificent set when heard all together, several of them are manageable by intermediate players. Number 6 in B minor is currently on ABRSM’s Grade 6 exam syllabus, and while at first glance it appears relatively straightforward, it is actually far from easy. The cello-like melody in the left hand needs to be played with projection, shape and an understanding of legato cantabile touch, and because the player’s attention is likely to be focussed on the left hand it is all too easy to neglect the tolling bell we hear in the repeated right hand B’s. The quaver pairs need a lot of control and careful listening if we are to stress the first and lighten the second as marked. Pedalling is another issue in this Prélude. Are […]

Pedal in Bach: Yes or No?

The subject of pedal in the music of Bach always arouses keen debate. Ought pianists to steer clear of it and control everything by the fingers, or is it possible to use a bit of pedal? If I play Bach on a small piano in a furnished drawing room with a thick carpet, I might well need touches of pedal to help my sound. If I play the same work on a concert grand in a large church with a lot of acoustic reverberation, the building itself would add a certain amount of resonance without my having to do anything. There would be a lustrous halo around my sound, and I might not need to touch the pedal at all. If the acoustical resonance was excessive, I would probably find myself slowing down the tempo and sharpening up my articulation a bit too, to preserve clarity. Nothing is cast in stone, we always need to adapt depending on our surroundings. Some pianists (who should know better) state that the harpsichord does not have dampers. Of course it does, or finger pedalling would not be possible (more about this in a moment). It is true that none of Bach’s keyboard instruments had a sustaining device, but piano sound without pedal tends to be dry and boring. Short shallow dabs of pedal can add welcome colour and resonance, but of course this has to be done well or we risk ruining the music. This helpful video gives a basic overview of the harpsichord action. Finger Pedalling Foreign to many pianists, the technique of holding onto notes beyond their written duration is an integral part of harpsichord and fortepiano technique. Before you lurch for your pedal, consider whether you […]

Pedalling by Hand

I first published this article in 2016. Now that I have made a new video demonstrating the differences between the Couperin piece in his original notation versus what we see in the Anna Magdalena Bach Notebook, I decided to republish. I hope this subject will be food for thought, leading to some experimentation with finger pedalling as an added means of creating resonance. ***   ***   *** Pianists have always felt that the music of J S Bach is accessible to them. The Early Music Movement (1970s wave) did put some pressure on those of us who presented Bach’s music to do so in particular ways that were perhaps more suitable to the instruments of his day than our mighty grand pianos, but fortunately the greatness of the music transcends the medium – harpsichord, piano, synthesiser, whatever. The perennial question of pedal always comes up when discussing Bach style on the piano. The argument goes that, because Bach’s instruments were not equipped with any sustaining mechanism, we should steer clear of our right pedal (for some players this means completely). “The pedal is to the piano as the vibrato is to string players. Both must be applied with care, control and in moderation. Clarity is essential with Bach, the purity of counterpoint and voice leading must be self-evident, never muffled or confused. Thus a discreet use of the pedal is not forbidden as long as these rules are observed. The question remains whether it is beneficial to the music to look for easier solutions. A perfect legato on the piano is an impossibility, and one can only create an illusion of achieving it. To attempt this with the hands alone is much more difficult but it’s well […]

By |January 17th, 2019|Pedalling|1 Comment

Pedalling for Resonance

In the days before the piano was invented, harpsichordists did not have any sort of sustaining device and so created resonance using the technique of overholding (or finger pedalling). On a harpsichord (just like on a piano) holding onto a key with a finger ensures the damper associated with that key remains in the up position, allowing the string to resonate. Sometimes composers wrote finger pedalling out, other times they assumed the player would just do it anyway. Here is an example of the former, scrupulously notated by François Couperin in his Les Barricades Mystérieuses. A universal tendency I have noticed among piano students is the missed opportunity for resonance in a piece that requires pedal from the start. What is the point of putting the pedal down only after you have played the first chord, when putting it down beforehand opens up the instrument for maximum resonance immediately the hammers hit the strings? Take the opening of the Grieg Concerto. If the pedal is down before you play the opening chord, then the whole instrument resonates at the start of the sound. Try it for yourself – play the chord without the pedal and you will get a very dry result, since only four dampers will be raised (the RH notes in that particular chord are too high even to need dampers). If you pedal just after the chord, you will miss the full resonance. Instead of an explosive accent, you get a sort of hairpin crescendo. With the pedal down before, all the dampers are raised and the whole instrument can resonate. I have recently published a video walkthrough on the Rachmaninov Prelude in C# minor on the Online Academy, here is a short […]

Virtuosic Pedalling

Are you squeamish about using the soft pedal? Some players never venture there, because at some point their teacher has told them they need to be able to control soft playing by hand – and if they resort to the soft pedal they will soon come to use it as a crutch and will have no control of their sound. Those who fear their playing is disturbing others often seem to slam down the soft pedal at the start of a practice session and leave it there until they are done. They have set up such a strong reflex that their left foot just goes there automatically, no matter the piano or the situation. The effect is to muffle the sound and remove clarity and focus, a bit like someone apologetically covering their mouth as they speak. This is not good for general, habitual use at all but is a wonderful resource if it’s the sound you’re after for a particular effect. Have you stopped to consider that every single piano in the world comes equipped with a soft pedal, from the humblest upright to the mightiest concert grand? A muting device was even included on the earliest pianos (at that stage a hand stop), and in more recent developments from Fazioli we now have fourth pedal to the left of the others on the F308 model. The new pedal reduces the hammer-blow distance, thus reducing the volume without modifying the timbre (akin to the mechanics of the soft pedal on an upright piano). One might deduce from all of this that the soft pedal is here to stay – and is certainly there to be used. There is a fascinating new video just out from Frederic […]

Senza Pedale

I wonder how many of you have embarked on Dry January, perhaps as a New Year’s resolution? The idea is that by abstaining from alcohol for a month you reset your relationship with it by becoming conscious of what you have been doing habitually. Drinking, particularly in UK culture, is often a habit that can go unchecked – until you deliberately intercept it. What might this have to do with practising the piano? As I was experimenting with a pedalling solution for the Brahms A minor Intermezzo, op 76 no 7 for last week’s post, I started by trying to make the relevant passage sound as good as possible without any pedal at all – in other words, dry! I wanted my fingers to do as much of the work as possible before adding pedal afterwards. With a little effort I found I could get quite a long way towards making it sound good by hand, and when I finally added the pedal it was like the icing on the cake. Piano sound without the pedal can be terribly dry, like eating a bowl of cornflakes without the milk. But if we constantly rely on our foot to make our fingers sound good, we can get way too comfortable and complacent about what is actually going on under our hands. The right foot can make us sound amazing, but it also very good at masking finger sins. While we wouldn’t want to go for a whole month without the pedal, it is a great idea occasionally to practise deliberately without it – as a discipline. When we do this, we might somehow disable the pedal – I am not suggesting anything as drastic as unscrewing […]

By |January 18th, 2018|Pedalling|0 Comments

Pedalling Problems and Possibilities

I often find I have quibbles with pedal markings printed in the score. Chief among them is that these markings do not – nor can they ever expect to – indicate depth of the pedal depression (from a mere fraction to full throttle) nor factor in the resonance of the particular instrument in the particular space. Some composers write in their pedalling, usually with the antiquated “Ped” sign (to show where the pedal goes down) followed by “*” (where it should come up). Not only are these markings imprecise, they belong to a period where direct pedal was the norm (in other words, pedal down with the hands and up with the hands), as opposed to syncopated, or legato pedalling (where the pedal change happens as the hands go down). Players of historic pianos report that the dampers were much less efficient than they are on today’s instruments, making an early pedal lift essential for the dampers to do their job. So these direct pedals may well have worked nicely on earlier pianos but are we to stick with them religiously today? Very few pianists do. What are we to make of these two pedal marks in Chopin’s Prelude in E minor (bars 6 and 7 in this example)? To me it’s very obvious. These are examples of special pedal – longer pedals where he wants the bass note caught up in the harmony – as opposed to ordinary pedal elsewhere, which he didn’t need to mark. It would be ludicrous to assume that, just because he does not write any other pedal marks in this prelude that we should play without it. “Pedalling cannot be written down. It varies from one instrument to another, […]

By |November 16th, 2017|Pedalling|0 Comments

Virtuosic Pedalling

The subject of pedalling emerged as one of the most sought after topics amongst my readers in surveys I ran prior to the launch of the Online Academy. Therefore I decided to create a substantial video demonstration series on pedalling for the Online Academy. I’ve just added an additional video, Pedalling According to Basses which brings the series to a total of seven. I’ll be adding further videos one by one on an ongoing basis. The pedal markings that have become standardised in our scores seem to cause quite a lot of confusion. The “Ped” sign to indicate where the pedal goes down and the “*” sign to show the release is an approximate and often arbitrary notation; the release often strikes me as having more to do with the whimsy or practical considerations of the typesetter of the particular edition we are using. With this notation it would appear there should be a small gap after the release before the foot goes down again, implying a direct pedal rather than a legato pedal. If we read Chopin’s pedal marks according to the letter, we will be using direct pedals. But are we to assume that a pianist of the calibre of Chopin, say, never used legato pedalling – despite the less efficient damper system on the pianos of his day? We tend to think that legato pedalling was invented by Anton Rubinstein, but is Czerny describing it in 1839? “The quitting and resuming the pedal must be managed with the utmost rapidity, not to leave any perceptible chasm or interstice between the chords; and must take place strictly with the first note of each chord…The rapidly leaving and resuming the pedal must be practiced…till such passages…sound as if the pedal was held down without interruption.” – Carl Czerny, Complete […]

By |September 29th, 2016|Pedalling|0 Comments

On Pedalling, Slow Practice and Practical Theory

I’ve recently run a survey to find out what repertoire you would like to see me feature in blog articles, annotated study editions and in the Online Academy which I’m currently working on. This survey was a follow-on from an open-ended survey I ran in January which covered both repertoire and topics. My team has analysed the responses and we would like to take the opportunity now to let you know what the most popular topics were. The first question asked what specific areas of technique you would like me to address, and the most popular requests were: Pedalling Ornaments Learning complex, irregular rhythms The next question asked which specific areas of practising you would like to see covered in more detail, and the most popular responses were: Slow practice Quarantining Memorisation I also asked about other topics not currently covered on our blog or within our eBook series, and the following have come up: Practical theory and harmony Injury prevention and healthy playing Improvisation and playing by ear Many thanks to everyone who responded, your feedback is very much appreciated and I will be incorporating it into the content for the Online Academy. I have already taken a number of your suggestions on board, and I am busy working on materials that feature them. Here are some of things I am working on right now: Various articles on The Practice Tools, with video demonstrations and cross references to the repertoire you have chosen. Have you ever wondered how you are going to fill in the gaps in your understanding of theory and harmony? You know you need to know more, and you would be willing to take a course but you just can’t seem to find the right one. I am addressing this […]

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