Meddling with the Pedal
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.
Chords; Plus a Tip About Legato
Irving is playing the prelude in C Major from Book One of the Well Tempered.
Do the notes of a chord need to sound simultaneously or need at least to have sounded in sequence, for the chord to be there in our aural consciousness?
The goal I propose is to realize, with the ear, that the chord is already there at the very beginning of each new measure. How many notes does the student need to play in the new measure before they “hear a chord”, as a whole. At first one might think it is from three to five notes. Indeed, at five notes every note of the chord has had a chance to sound.
What we hear when we perform is a delicate balance of sounds arriving through the outer and sounds coming out of our musical imagination. When we consider it from this point of view, a chord is already present, in its entirety, as soon as all its notes are sounding either to the outer ear or to the ‘inner’ ear.
Irving and I worked on his “hearing” the chord at, or even before, his playing the first note of the next measure. Or, at least for it to translate from expectation to sound as early as possible in the measure. The chord, rather than materializing itself during the measure, instead “reaches out” and “embraces” the notes of the measure as they sound. The notes from ‘outside’ feel the attraction of the chord from the inside in a way analogous to how iron filings are bent into alignment to a magnet’s lines of force.
Our ultimate goal was to play the melody (in this piece all the melody notes are chord-tones) as if we already heard the entire chord. That the chord is ‘there’ the moment the melodic phrase began. To put it somewhat dramatically “the chord is always there”.
Another points of view on a chord:
Another way we looked at a chord was to think that the separate chord notes, and the order in which they would sound sequentially through, time ‘held’ or ‘contained’ in the simultaneity of its notes sounding together at once. The beauty of the situation is once the chord is compressed into a simultaneous experience, all sense of the order in the chord tones will sound is lost to the ear. The joy is to undergo the process by which we learn in what fashion the chord unfurls itself into a sequence of notes in time.
We practiced extracting single notes, one by one, from the simultaneity of the chord. We allowed the same note to be pulled out of the chord more than once. We allowed for some of the chord notes, once liberated from the simultaneity of the chord, to be connected, in this ‘outer’ space of time, by passing tones, and other tones of embellishment.
Tricks with time:
A way of retaining the effect of the notes sounding together while playing the melody, is to hold each note of the melody over into all the following notes of the melody. Much like playing the melody with the pedal down. At first the notes emerge separate and liberated from the implied simultaneous chord, but only to start accreting again into a simultaneous sound. The melody is then an intermediate phase between the simultaneous chord and the simultaneous chord.
A more “chordal” way of hearing an arpeggio:
Play an arpeggio over several octaves holding the pedal down throughout. Usually when we reach the final note of an arpeggio, we simply move on to the next notes printed in the score. But in this case, the final note is not the end of the sound of the arpeggio, just the beginning of the point when all the notes in the chord are resonating together. topping point, we keep the right pedal down so we can here all the previously made sounds resonate together. We can continue to let this chord or cluster ring for seconds or more until it has slowly died away. It’s an entirely new aesthetic experience: a decrescendo-ing chord, with ample time to hear conjure with the effect of all those notes sounding together.
After a while Irving could play a melody in such a way that one almost was convinced that he was hearing a chord sounding throughout the duration of melody, accompanying each of the notes. From time to time it was apparent from his playing that the current chord had just ceded its presence a new chord, which in turn reached out to embrace and enclose the current notes of the melody.
A related tip – about legato:
If you want to create a legato sound in a series of sequential notes, first play a group of the adjacent notes in the melody as a simultaneous cluster. It doesn’t matter if the cluster is dissonant or consonant. Now extract the notes one by one from that cluster. Think of the melody notes as already latent already in the cluster. Our job, as legato players, is to feel the glue between the notes that comes from, not just from how the end of one note connects to the next note, but by the fact that hear them already connected as in the cluster.*
For a legato connection between just two notes, just play first the two notes together, and then play them in sequence, but in your inner ear keep them glued together.
Sometimes I will think of legato as a group of notes that leave behind them in time a “thick trail”. Like the ice crystals trailing behind a jet that is already at a high altitude. Like your hand is a large paintbrush which, as you move your hand in space, leaves a thick sinuous line on the canvas.
*As we start the melody it is as if we have a “pre”-memory in time of what the cluster will be when we finish the last note in the group.
Complex counterpoint in Bach
Some of the most complex wonders of Bach’s counterpoint, such as the F minor Sinfonia or the first movement of the B minor flute sonata, result from a procedure that is structurally, surprisingly simple.
There are three voices in the Sinfonia and three in the flute sonata (two in the keyboard and one in the flute). At the same time, there are several distinct motives present, any one of which can appear in one voice or another at any time. There are often three different motives appearing simultaneously in the three voices.
This suggests a creative procedure similar to making a mosaic. In a mosaic, there may be only several differently shaped pieces, or tesserae. From these few pieces, the entire structure of the work is created.
Though there is great variety in the sound of the piece, the parts making it up at any one moment are just one of the severally shaped pieces of the mosaic.
The counterpoint is most effective when these basic pieces are as different from each other as is possible. The F Minor Sinfonia is the perfect example of this. There are just three motives: one is a series of slow, chromatically descending quarter notes; the second is a series of three eighth notes, a movement up of a third and then down of a second; the last is faster, moving motive in sixteenths and thirty seconds. Bach creates an entire universe, aesthetically full and complete, with these three motives that each take up abode in one voice and then another. What genius!
While artists may follow the procedure of “separating” the voices in their playing, sometimes the greatest separation effect comes from following a single motive as it migrates from voice to another. I first discovered this principle in the five voice fugue in C-sharp minor in Book One, especially after the eighth notes begin.
Quality distinguished from quantity
Quantity versus quality, the immeasurable versus the measurable.
Non-typically, Irving has chosen to start work on a piece by Debussy.
This affords an opportunity to revise his customary way of approaching a new piece.
Part One: Keeping score on the number of wrong notes.
Usually, when Irving begins a practicing session, he measures his improvement in direct proportion to the increasing percentage of right notes that he plays and the decreasing number of errors.
This means he is devoting his conscious effort to ‘measurable’ quantities (the pitches of notes) rather than other things that are, in contrast to quantities, best termed qualities that are evoked in his playing.
How do we sidestep his “pointillistic” application of correct notes to the piece?
The first step was a bit drastic. I asked him to leave the right pedal down until a large group of notes were all swimming around in a common and confusing sounding tonal pool.
We then refined this so the notes that were thrown in the pool were only those that were chord-tones according to the current harmony. By doing this, a chord was being gradually built up, one note at a time, until all the notes of the chord were sounding together.
Now came the leap of musical imagination together with a slight derailing of the forward arrow of time. “The sound of this chord-cluster in its entirety,” I said, “should be in your imagination from the moment you play the first sound of the group that is going to form the chord at the end of the process. It is like a magical pedal that not only combines the sounds left in the wake of each sound, but can also summon up the presence of the sounds that remain to be heard.”
Once this effect is achieved with regularity, the next step is to re-create that feeling at will, with or without relying on the literal application of the pedal.
Part Two: Some other the desirable ‘qualities’ to evoke in the Debussy.
One note then the next:
A new note doesn’t always ‘eclipse’ an old note. The new note should not be opaque, in time, to the memory of the previous note. Let each note blend into the next, yielding its essence as an inheritance to the next note.
Melodies should seem to leave thick ‘trails’ behind their advancing wave front in time. The combined presence of their notes persists in time. Even without the pedal, the melody should sound in the imagination as if it were sounding in a perfect echo chamber; each part of the melody is inseparably bound to the overall shape of that melody.
Even in the early stages of reading a new piece, the pianist sometimes should try to play a passage in the intended final tempo. Otherwise the pianist who is interested primarily in right notes will automatically exclude from his consciousness the unique musical qualities of the piece that will animate and give life to the performance that will only become manifest in the piece’s proper tempo. Make the piece yield up its secrets before all the notes are learned.
Quality is so fundamentally different than quantity that the notes, if they are merely correct, eclipse the ability to modulate and shape sound, create tonal imagery, and release – as a flower giving off an aroma – all that is non-quantitative and miraculous about the piece and its sound.
Tempo can be used generally as a tool with which to experiment for evoking the qualities inherent in a piece. Playing a passage in its final tempo* sooner rather than later in the learning process, including wrong notes, will bring us to a realization of the indefinable aesthetic essence of the passage, rather than repeating the passage over and over in a gradually increasing tempo. The downside of approaching the final tempo gradually and incrementally is that the desired tempo may never actually be reached. Why? Because the successful execution, in the final tempo, depends as much on a clear musical vision of the aesthetic qualities of the piece as it does on physical technique. We need the qualities of the piece to guide and lead the notes into yielding their musical essence that transcends the actual identity of the pitches.
* whether this final tempo is slower or faster than the initial practice tempo
Coaching an instrumentalist for an orchestra audition
In today’s incarnation, “Irving” is a bassoonist rather than a pianist. He is about to audition for a local orchestra. The required excerpt for the audition is the opening of the second movement of Scheherazade.
I listened to him play the solo through. The notes were there, but overall it lacked a sense of the presence in his imagination of the other instruments playing at the same time, and the effect that would have on how he sounded the passage.
He had played the same solo a year or so earlier in an orchestra. So I asked him “what instruments were accompanying you during the solo?”
He thought about and said “the woodwinds?”
I said, “No, it is actually four solo double basses.”*
He played the solo again, but this time I played on the piano the chords played by the four double basses. This caused a sudden change in his playing. One thing that happened was that he fine-tuned both the pitch and the feeling of his notes to better fit in with the chords. In tonal music, no note has a single, abstract, or ideal pitch. It varies in small amounts to best fit in with the harmonic context in the form of the chord that is sounding at that moment. Each chord in turn has a certain feeling, which if recognized and felt fine tunes the timbre or tone quality of the bassoonist’s note.
No longer was his playing an island to itself, it had a broader context. The trick, I said, is to make these modulations to the sounds even when you are playing by yourself without the other instruments, which can only be heard in your head. The person auditioning you is listening to see whether this broader musical context shines through the notes that you play.
“How do I do this,” he asked?
Let’s start with knowing when in the solo the chord in the basses changes. He didn’t know. I said: let’s play through it again, this time listening specifically for the changes in the chords. It shouldn’t be too difficult to do because, based on how he had played the passage when I played the chords at the piano, he was already subconsciously responding to them.
Next I asked him if the first chord in the basses seemed to last a surprisingly long time before changing. If so, what beneficial effect did that harmonic inflexibility have on the effect of the solo? He said that it made the bassoon solo seem more “frozen and static.” I agreed.
Was he, I asked, aware that this first chord contained only root notes and fifths and lacked the third of the chord, the note that which would determine whether the chord was a major chord or minor chord. It was incumbent on the bassoonist to make that choice clear to the listener, and to be especially aware of when the bassoon made up for the deficit of the third by momentarily playing the third himself.
Later in the session I wanted to demonstrate, in a more general way, how the ‘color’ of a note depends on the chord to which it belongs. And how this color could change, depending on whether he was playing the root, third, fifth or seventh of the chord.
I had him hold a single note for as long as he could, while I surrounded his chord with first one chord then another. I started with the three major chords and the three minor chords that contained the note he was holding. Then I went on to seven-chords that contained his note. Then I gradually shifted to chords that didn’t contain his note, which therefore caused his note to be dissonant – but always dissonant in a specific enough way to create a definite and peculiar color to the dissonance.
Though he held the bassoon’s pitch relatively constant, he instinctively changed the timbre and the intonation to reflect the way his note fit (or did not fit) in the chord.
* albeit an odd orchestration, but an inspired choice given the shape and mood of the solo.