Ever experience the “bump” sound from not knowing how to really master the pedals of the piano? It’s a difficult task in itself, let alone using it to create expression in your playing. Most students taking piano lessons and even amateurs find it challenging to actively think about both what the hands and feet are doing.
First thing to remember: your heel always remains on the floor (much like using the brake and gas in the car) and the top part of the foot lifts up to release the pedal and pushes down to depress the pedal.
Let’s begin with the damper pedal, or the sustain pedal (the pedal to the far right, used by the right foot). As a beginner, you may have brazenly pedalled through your sonatinas without really thinking about what your foot was doing. Old habits die hard, as they say, but they aren’t impossible to fix. One way to go about it is to take a simple phrase in one hand and pedal after each note, first playing the note, then depressing the damper pedal, then smoothly lifting your foot completely before you play the next note. Try to avoid the “bump” sound when your foot releases the pedal by doing it slowly. It’s tricky at first, but after doing it slowly until you master the technique, you can then apply the same exercise to every three notes, depressing the pedal after the first note and then lifting it after the third is played. The idea is to smoothly transition the up-and-down motion of the foot without the unwanted “bump” sound. Remember that the key is doing this slowly at first.
If you’re at the intermediate level, you will be using the pedal to shape phrases, very much like how we connect certain words in sentences to either emphasize or de-emphasize them. For example, if you’re playing a series of connected chords that require a change of pedal after every four chords, chances are that you will do your best to not make it sound muddy. The trick to this challenge is not depressing the pedal all the way to the floor after each pedal change, but lifting it completely at each pedal change. This “half-pedal” technique is ideal to create a smooth, clear, but very connected line containing many different notes.
What about the soft (aka una corda) pedal? Located on the left side and played by the left foot, this pedal mutes the strings, creating a softer, duller sound. Although most people think to use it to create an even quieter volume, the soft pedal is an excellent tool to create different “colors,” or types of sounds that are more subdued rather than bright, much like a soft pastel painting versus a vibrant acrylic one. Unlike the damper pedal, the soft pedal must be depressed to the floor since it operates by shifting the keyboard to the right.
The middle pedal, otherwise known as the sostenuto pedal, is rarely used but can be quite useful when needed. It is utilized by first playing a note (or notes) on the piano and then immediately depressing the pedal with your left foot. All other keys played while this pedal is depressed are not held, allowing only the depressed notes to be continuously sustained. Like the soft pedal, you must completely depress the sostenuto pedal in order for it to function.
Practice these techniques at home and remember that the key to good pedalling technique is a smooth up-and-down motion of the foot. Good luck!