Breaking bad habits is hard to do, and this is especially true with damper-pedal technique.
Students don’t always get direct advice and instruction on how to properly use the damper pedal, and this can become a real problem when they advance to more difficult repertoire.
But, if taught properly, damper-pedal technique can be very clearly executed and with the following method, teachers can correctly instruct their beginning students or even remedy bad habits acquired by more experienced students.
When should the damper pedal be introduced?
One question that many teachers have is when to introduce the pedal to a beginning student.
It seems each method book has a slightly different approach, but overall it is best to wait until after the student has gotten comfortable with posture and position, is consistently playing correctly with arm weight and sufficient individual finger strength, and is comfortable playing with both hands together.
After these first techniques are successfully incorporated, then the pedal can slowly be added into their playing.
Beginning Pedal Technique.
The best way to introduce this new technique is to go over how the damper-pedal works.
Take the time to look inside the piano and explain the mechanics of the pedal, as this can help students visualize what happens every time they depress and lift their right foot.
Next, you can demonstrate what a difference the timing makes when trying to “catch” a sound with the damper-pedal while trying not to have any of the previous sound blended in. Make sure to work with no-pedal to pedal technique first, not overlapping pedal, which will come later.
After this, have the student play a note or chord while you demonstrate the proper timing of the pedal with your own foot. Also, show examples of incorrect timing and make sure they understand the difference.
Remember to indicate how the pedal goes down directly after the note or chord, and that the foot “reacts” to the hands. The pedal must always be after the hands; otherwise, it blurs with the previous sound.
Next, you can switch around and play a note or chord and have them attempt the correct pedal timing. Make sure they keep the right heel on the ground, play with the ball of their foot and lift all the way up and down.
Listen and discuss the outcomes. This is usually the “Aha!” moment for students with the pedal.
Once they understand the timing, have them try the note or chord and pedal together until they get the timing right. At this point, you can assign them easy songs that use the pedal, but still not overlapping pedal yet.
Moving on to Overlapping Pedal.
Once they master individual pedaling, you can show them overlapping pedal technique.
First, you can demonstrate with a longer passage of music that has overlapping pedal.
Explain that at the start, you pedal as already learned, then you hold the foot through the first harmony change. You play the next note or chord and then change the damper-pedal quickly after the new sound, but hold the new note or chord long enough to “catch” the sound before moving to another note or chord.
Reiterate the concept of the foot always “reacting” to the sound the hands make. The pedal is the “glue” that holds the two different sounds together without fully combining them.
When demonstrating, note the different moments that happen in the sequence:
- Just before the new chord, the pedal is down and the hands are free to move where they need to go.
- During the dropping of the new chord the pedal is still held and there is a brief mixing of the two harmonies.
- Immediately after this the pedal lifts and drops while holding the new chord, which “fixes” the blurry, mixed sound.
- Then the pedal holds while the hands move to another chord (i.e. another inversion of the harmony).
Each of these actions should be distinct and demonstrated in “slow motion” to have the full effect.
You can use the same method as before, first having them play as you do the pedal (both correctly and incorrectly to show the difference), and then you play as they try the overlapping pedal timing until they get it right.
Have them practice in “slow motion” then gradually get faster with the sequence of motions. Once they are able to do one pedal change properly, then have them try two in a row, and then a series of changes.
After having mastered this, you can assign them a technically easy song that has continuous overlapping pedal. Monitor their pedal in the following lessons to make sure the timing doesn’t get “lazy,” especially if the student is relearning how to properly use the damper-pedal.
This method takes some concentrated effort, but it will give your students the skills to naturally execute the pedal in more advanced pieces as well.
About the Author: This article about developing excellent technique is by Carter McMullen from the Baltimore School of Music. You can read more about Carter and his work below.
Carter McMullen is a piano teacher at the Baltimore School of Music. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgia State University and a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia, both in Piano Performance. He continued his music studies at conservatories in Paris, France and London, England.
Carter maintains an active performing schedule including solo and chamber music, instrumental and vocal accompanying, and jazz. He toured South America three times with the Chase Educational Foundation, giving concerts and masterclasses in Argentina and Chile, and has performed in concerts in France, Italy, the UK, and the US. He regularly collaborates with performance students at the Peabody Institute.
In 2017, Carter founded the Union Square Chamber Music Society, and as Artistic Director, he organizes monthly salon concerts in which he regularly takes part as a performer.