Uhhh, that sustain pedal…
—“Oh, I used one-quarter pedalling, in the finale of the Pathetique.”
—“Why not use three-quarters depressed pedal in that passage?”
— “I did very well with this Mozart sonata. One-quarter depressed sustain pedal did the trick.”
Arguably, it’s a most common thing to professional performers to not knowing exactly what they’re doing when confronted with the question “how do you pedal this?”
Then, and only then, they would try and forge an answer to satisfy our curiosity. And I have to reassure you, that this question is a bit meaningless. Those pianists, in all probability, they’ve learned the piece in question without thinking too much on how to pedal. Well, they thought about where to put pedal and they certainly worked out its musical effect in the piece, but, they never thought about feet distances from the ground, centimetres, weights, velocities, and the rest of things the music “bystanders” of this world try to unsuccessfully put into words.
So, how do those pianists pedal their pieces, then? Is it only by sheer chance? Well, no it’s not. When a pianist plays — and I shall put my literature hat on— there’s a thing that happens, a magical thing, that cannot be explained with mere words. The last thing a pianist should think when performing is how to move his legs and feet. Unlike hands, that have many different things to do while in a performance, feet, normally have one thing to accomplish; the up-down movement. (Well, read on.) So, it is only natural for us, to pay more attention to our hands than to our feet when we perform. And to be honest, our hands more often than not are doing the hardest thing. Of course, pedal is of utmost importance in a pianist’s arsenal of pianism, but hey-ho, we all know that fingers is the boss here.
Thus, forget about half pedallings, one-quarter pedallings, 1/16 pedalings, high heels, Charleston-pedalling, and all that nonsense. That’s for the academics; i.e, people who talk piano wonderfully, describe things with flair and precision, but can’t play it.
Appropriate pedalling doesn’t depend on how many inches we move our feet up or down. It depends on how we perceive our preconceived sound inside us.
At the same time, don’t forget that every piano has its own capricious behaviour, and character. So, it’s impossible to cater for every piano in the same manner.
Martha Argerich playing at Carnegie Hall, does not have the time, or the will, to technically think how she should go about pedalling the list B minor Sonata, in order to satisfy a questioner later on. It all happens naturally to her. The last thing that bothers Kissin is how many centimetres he should lift his foot or what’s the appropriate thickness of his shoe when playing on that particular Steinway at the Verbier festival. Of course, we would go above and beyond to explain what his supposed, ravishing pedal technique is, but he basically hasn’t got a clue of what we are talking about. He just plays the instrument. Do you get my gist?
So, what’s the appropriate mindset?
“But how am I going to learn pedalling? This, surely isn’t a good article,” I hear you saying. “Is there any method I should follow?”
Much like a writer cannot become the next Hemingway just by attending writing classes, drinking tea in futile writers’ groups, or having the best editor in hand, but by reading books and “mingling” a lot with the “literate” side of life, the same should apply to you and pedalling. You cannot learn pedalling by using a technical manual or, dare I say, the best piano teacher in the world. Needless to say, that you cannot learn pedalling by reading this article, but that’s another story. For me as a teacher, to type in this article “play half-pedal in that Chopin ballade or “quiver” your foot up and down on that Rachmaninov study, is the easiest part and any teacher could do this all day long. However, I won’t be able to say whether you’re doing it correctly, if I had only seen your foot moving but hadn’t listened to your sound. Visual representation doesn’t guarantee successful musical deliverance; and don’t forget, that the other piano might need a different, incremental approach to produce a comparable musical result. (Since, to produce the same result is impossible, of course.)
So, What Do I Do? Can You Tell Me Already?
Well… You’ve already got the best teacher close by. In fact, you’ve got the best teacher within you. Your best pedal teacher is your wonderful ears. You need to start relying more and more on your ears; develop your musical-perception ear and also listening to your actual playing, because when we play the piano keys and subsequently pedal, in essence, our ears are going to do the pedalling for us, and not our feet.
You can improve pedalling, by listening to accepted pianists’ performances and by understanding orchestral music and generally envisioning your preferred sound-outcome, in advance. Just keep listening and playing the type of music you want to play, and somehow, it’s gonna happen. I know that this site is supposed to be describing in detail how to do things, but this time I’m not going to lie to you; you just have to, sort of, “teach” yourself pedalling.
Let’s not complicate things; we normally consider good pianists the ones that play good with their fingers, forgetting their wonderful playing with their feet. Because, one plays the piano with both feet and fingers. But, fingers are harder to do beautifully in piano. We concentrate always on the wrong notes, bad tempi, and we forget about the cloudy sound from a full pedal. Its only natural, however. So, not everything in life must be elevated to high art, or has equal difficulty or significance. Pedal is basically an up and down motion to be honest. However, it’s up to us to make it important and assistive.