Meddling with the Pedal
December 21, 2018
J told me today that she always eschews using the pedal. “It makes things sound more cacophonous and confusing”. In particular she used the word “clangy” to describe to describe what the piano sounded like when the right pedal was depressed. It simply wasn’t pleasant to her ear. At best, J. wants to wait until she knows how the to play the piece very well and what it sounds like before adding any pedal at all. In general I think that’s great …. I could take a lesson from her on this subject.
I used the next portion of the lesson to describe other ways of using the pedal than she may have thought of, some or all of which would meet with her ear’s approval.
Putting it down for a single note – to make that note slightly more resonant, when sounding by itself, than without the pedal down. I explained sympathetic vibrations to her. I had her shout into the piano when the pedal was depressed and that the piano’s sound mimicked her voice.
That the effect of the pedal is mitigated by the tempo. A slow tempo allows for more of the notes to subside before their longevity is extended by the pedal into the next notes.
Cases where we specifically want each new sound to blur into an accumulating mass of previously begun sounds. That there is a fine aesthetic balance between using the pedal to contradict and mar the previous sounds, and to simply update at the last moment the previous sounds. And that doing the latter alters the subtle timbre of the sound, and causes that sound to be more at ‘evolving’ than getting lost in the shuffle of time.
Being aesthetically selective as to which specific notes react well to being united briefly by the pedal. Even if you are playing a series of notes from a common chord, there are moments when one of those notes creates a good effect if held over into just the next note, and when it mars (spoils) the sound of the passage.
For instance the two first and lowest notes in a chord being held down with the pedal. It is brief enough that the ear doesn’t immediately know why the sound was enriched at that very moment, without listening to it a second time from the beginning. The pedal is gone by the third note. This is useful when the pinkie plays a bass note in the left hand and then other notes are played also by the left hand but in the tenor or alto range (for instance the more familiar Chopin Nocturne in E-flat major). If you choose to keep the pedal down during the first two of these notes, then it has the added benefit of prolonging the low bass tone – just long enough for its impression to linger even if it is not sustained throughout the rest of the figuration. It adds to the identity, definition of the harmony.
Ultimately the number of notes through which you hold the pedal down varies more with the tempo of the piece and how many notes are played throughout the course of just beat. The faster the tempo and/or the greater the number of notes sounding within a given duration, less time in general you should keep the pedal depressed.
A ‘forced’ or ‘coerced’ diminuendo.
Sometimes a held note does not decay or die away fast enough for the dramatic effect desired.
Using a “terraced” pedal effect, one can speed up, to any desired degree, the rate at which the note dies away. While the note is decaying, at certain regular intervals of time, lift the pedal a bit but immediately quash it back down. The more frequently one repeats this act during the full duration of the note, the more rapidly the note will die away. Be careful just how little or far you lift the pedal, for it is very finely dependent on the mechanism of the pedal on your piano.
The extreme case is a very loud sound which is supposed to vanish almost entirely barely a moment after it is started. For this effect, all that is necessary is to attack the chord without the pedal down, lift the hands suddenly off the keys, and a bare instant later push the pedal down. At this point the dampers will not yet have completed stopped the sounds of the vibrating strings, and the little sound that is left will be caught by the pedal. By varying the time unit between releasing the hands and depressing the pedal, from mere hundredths of second to tenths of a second you can achieve everything from a fortissimo followed by a mezzo forte, to a fortissimo followed by a pianissimo.
To reveal notes that were sounding but could not be heard or singled out at the time.
This is achieved by releasing the pedal but keeping a chosen group of keys silently depressed. Charles Ives uses this effect magically in the second movement of the “Concord” sonata. A tumultuous and dissonant downward spiral of pitches is executed with the pedal held done. The amalgam of sounds gets denser and denser and more and more cacophonous. This accumulated cluster lingers for a few seconds, during which time the pianist silently depresses the keys forming a six-note open position F# major chord in the bass and tenor.
The pianist then lifts the pedal. It takes a moment or two for the listener to realize that they are hearing the soft, steady resonance of the F# major chord.
Half pedaling (my personal favorite), which is similar to number five.
This technique entails partially releasing the pedal, so that the entire sound is not cancelled out, and then pushing the pedal all the way back down again. Some of the sound persists as the pedal reaches bottom. It is similar to the carpenter’s way of joining two pieces of wood creating a “tongue and groove”. One piece of wood does not suddenly end and the other begin at the same place: their boundary is not a straight line. There is a hidden or partial overlap. This is especially useful for those who like the general sound of the piano with the pedal down, but restrict themselves because of the accumulating “clang” of the notes. Again, how much you release the pedal is dependent of the unique mechanism of your pedal action.
Mimicking the pedal by holding down lower pitched notes without sounding them.
Sometimes a student will play a note and then release it, but is surprised that they still hear the note sounding. I point out to the them that their left hand was inadvertently resting on some of the keys, either partially or completely depressing them, though without sounding any of them.
Holding a key down silently allows the string(s) for that pitch to vibrate. It is exactly that same thing that the right pedal does. In the latter case every damper is lifted off of every string, in the former a lesser but variable number of dampers are lifted from the strings.
Sometimes I will sit the piano to the student’s left and gradually, and silently, depress more and more adjacent notes. The student is surprised to hear that what starts as a faint aura of lingering sound to their notes, gradually exactly gets closer to imitating the effect gotten by pushing the pedal down.
Another, more approximate way of reproducing the same effect, similar to the “crescendo” pedal on the organ which at discreet moments allows more and then more pipes to be filled with air, is to start pushing down the pedal, but just millimeters at a time. In a well regulated piano all the dampers will begin lifting off the strings at exactly the same moment as the pedal, is depressed. However, usually our piano has not been just regulated and pushing the pedal down slightly allows some of the strings to vibrate in sympathy. The elasticity in some of the felt dampers may cling or linger on their strings. Over the first few millimeters gradations of echo and resonance will be achieved until, at some point, probably nearer the ‘top’ of the pedal than the middle, all the strings will suddenly be able to vibrate in sympathy.
Example: hold down, silently, the following notes: c3 g3 c4 e4 (c4 means middle C). These strings are tuned approximately to the first through the fourth overtones of the note c2 (second C below middle C). If, while holding these notes down, one plays c2 very loudly, suddenly and briefly, the other four notes will be heard sounding, especially after the low C goes away. They will have been conjured into being as if by magic.
I am always looking for more odd ways to use the pedal. If you know of one please share it on the site.
A cousin to these techniques is used in Henry Cowell’s piece “the Aeolian harp”:
The pianist reaches into the piano and strums the strings back and forth in the middle range of the piano. Most of the strings will barely sound, but certain strings will continue to vibrate after the hand passes them by – if the pianist, usually unseen by the audience, silently depresses first one group of keys then another. These notes will resonate as a chord or cluster.
In the “Aeolian Harp” Cowell combines the above described technique with that of holding the pedal down while plucking, one by one, specific strings that belong to a common chord.