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 Chiu where he discusses some of the issues involved in his work on the Liszt transcription of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Liszt noted down the names of the orchestral instruments for the pianist to imitate, and also added some pedal marks and fingerings. If you want to see a master craftsman illustrate how to use the soft pedal for changes of tone colour that mimic the different orchestral instruments, join the video here.
Later in the video, Mr. Chiu demonstrates what he calls “surgical pedalling”, where he uses the sostenuto pedal to create tiny overlaps and releases in the sound to show dialogue between two different layers of sound. If you want to try this, you’ll need to make sure your sostenuto pedal is properly adjusted.
Do watch the full video, though – there is so much food for thought.
And finally, my offering for Pianist Magazine on the una corda and sostenuto pedals:
For the score of Liszt’s arrangement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, follow this link
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If you enjoyed this blog post then you might also be interested in my Online Academy series The Art of Pedalling which provides a comprehensive treatise on the subject of pedalling.
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