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Penelope Roskell: Pillars of Piano Technique

Penelope Roskell: Pillars of Piano Technique

A 12-lesson series on core movements for a healthy piano technique, entirely for free.

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Piano pedals and pedaling technique are essential to playing piano—and yet they’re so often overlooked, like some unloved step-sibling of the 88 keys above.

I hope to change that by introducing you to the different kinds of piano pedals—damper, sostenuto, soft pedal, and the “practice” pedal (for uprights)—how they work, and how to use them.

Along the way, I hope to show you just how fascinating those three metal tabs by your feet can be, and why tonebase Piano instructor Jerome Lowenthal has said that pedaling is “as subtle as your soul is…and your sole as subtle as your soul is.” Try to say that five times fast.


I. Pedals, a Brief History
II. Damper or Sustain Pedal
III. Soft Pedal or "Una Corda"
IV. Middle Pedal or "Sostenuto"
V. Stylistic Considerations
VI. What Part of the Foot to Use


I. Pedals, a Brief History

The original fortepianos developed in Italy by Bartolomeo Cristofori didn’t have pedals—they had knobs, then knee levers that a player could pull to elicit different effects.

Pedals didn’t start appearing until the turn of the 19th century. In the early period of experimentation with pedals, makers threw all sorts of ideas at the wall to see what would stick—pedals to moderate the volume, to change timbre, to imitate a lute, to imitate a bassoon, even a pedal to ring brass bells called the “Turkish pedal.”

Figure 1 - Piano made by Conrad Graf at the turn of the 19th century, and played by Beethoven. Beethovenhaus Baden.

As tonebase artist Garrick Ohlsson describes in lesson "On Pedaling," Franz Haydn (1732-1809) was one of the earliest composers to experiment with the musical possibilities of piano pedals.

In his Sonata in C Major, No. 60, Hob. XVI/50—also known as the “English Sonata”—Haydn indicates “open pedal” at one point in the score (around 5:08). Performers have interpreted this marking to direct that they hold the sustain pedal down without releasing it, causing a blurring effect. “He suddenly becomes Debussy,” says John O’Connor in a recent tonebase lesson.

As the nineteenth century progressed, the standard pedals on pianos were whittled down to three: the damper/sustain pedal, the soft/“una corda,” and the middle/“sostenuto.”

Upright pianos, common in homes, often include a different middle pedal than grand pianos—the “practice pedal”—which has its own unique use.

Figure 2 - The three common pedals.

II. Damper or Sustain Pedal

The damper, or sustain, pedal is probably the most commonly used pedal in the arsenal. It’s located farthest right of all the pedals.

How it works

Pianos are actually intricate mechanical feats of engineering with over 12,000 parts, depending on the make.

Figure 3 - The action of a Kawai grand piano. Notice how many parts there are for a single note! Kawai USA.

Normally, when the player presses a note on the keyboard, it engages a hammer, which hits the corresponding string and sets it vibrating. Once the player takes their finger off the note, however, a “damper” falls back onto the string and snuffs out the sound.

When pressed, the damper pedal lifts all of the dampers on the instrument, allowing the note played to continue ringing, but also allowing “sympathetic notes” to resonate. The damper pedal adds an “aura” or depth to sound from the vibration of notes across the frequency spectrum.

5 Ways to Use the Damper Pedal

Any pianist will tell you that there are innumerable ways to use the damper or sustain pedal. Here are five:

1. To create a legato effect and avoid interruptions between notes.

tonebase artist Seymour Bernstein demonstrates this use of the damper pedal in a recent lesson, using it to connect notes in the bassline melody of Schumann’s “The Happy Farmer."

2. To give time for your hands to move.

Bernstein also notes that the pedal can—and should be used—to give the pianist enough time to move between notes.

The first bars of Chopin’s Scherzo No. 2 in B-Flat Minor, Op. 31, include a leap between low unison B-flats, and a chord in the treble clef. Chopin puts a pedal marking, and then two rests. What does he mean? Bernstein says it’s obvious: hit the B-flats, then use the pedal to give yourself time to get to the big block chord. If you watch this performance by Arthur Rubinstein, you’ll see that he does exactly that.

Figure 4 - Excerpt from the opening measures of Chopin's Scherzo No. 2 in B-Flat Minor, Op. 31. Bernstein’s advice: pedal and jump!

3. To create harmonies and connect notes that couldn’t otherwise be played together.

Garrick Ohlsson has a great tonebase lesson where he shows this effect in Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23.

Figure 5 - An excerpt from Chopin's Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23. Chopin marks pedal to connect notes in the bassline that span two octaves and couldn't otherwise sound together.

4. To “phrase” the music

You can use the richer sound that comes with pressing down the sustain pedal to highlight notes and melodies or “phrase” the music.

5. To create atmosphere or warmth

The damper or sustain pedal can be used to create the atmospheric shimmer that is often associated with French composers like Debussy or Ravel.

Often this requires fine-tuning how far you depress the pedal to get just the right resonance and blurring.

III. Soft Pedal or "Una Corda"

The soft pedal or “una corda” is the left-most pedal and can be used to soften or quiet the sound of the piano.

Depressing the soft pedal shifts the hammers slightly so that instead of hitting three strings for each note, they hit only one. The effect is a muted tone.

Often, the soft pedal is used by pianists to play pianissimo, the dynamic marking for “very soft.” However, you can get creative with the soft pedal. For example, tonebase artist Frederic Chiu uses the muted character of the soft pedal to create what he calls a “bokeh” effect with a sharp melody and an “unfocused” background in Chopin’s Étude No. 3 in E Major, Op. 10.

IV. Middle Pedal or "Sostenuto"

Some grand pianos include the sostenuto, which can be used to sustain some notes but not others.

When you press and hold the sostenuto, all the notes that you were playing when you pressed it are sustained, but any notes that come after are not. This can allow the performer to sustain a harmony below a melody while keeping the melodic line clear.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet shows how to do this in Debussy’s Prélude, “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair."

Figure 6 - Excerpt from Debussy's "The Girl with the Flaxen Hair." Thibaudet recommends using the sostenuto to hold the chords in the bass while the melody sounds clearly above.

Middle Pedal on Uprights – The “Practice Pedal”

Figure 7 - Using the "Practice Pedal" on an upright to make the overall volume quieter. Image: https://www.beethovenpianos.com/blog/what-is-the-difference-between-silent-pianos-hybrid-pianos-and-mute-pedal-on-upright-pianos.

Many upright pianos include a different middle pedal: the “practice pedal.”

This pedal can be used to dampen the sound of the piano continuously, thus sparing other members of the household from noisy practicing. The “practice pedal” can usually be locked in place to sustain the effect.

V. Stylistic Considerations

Pedaling Music from Different Eras

Blanket statements about how to pedal or when to pedal are fraught, and most performers will say that pedaling comes down to using one’s ear (for a funny story about that, check out Gwendolyn Mok’s recent tonebase lesson. Still, here are a few things to consider.

Baroque Era (~1600-1750)

Composers in the baroque era didn’t have pianos with pedals. J.S. Bach (1685-1750) predated the development of the modern piano with pedals; thus, many performers are hesitant to use pedal with his music. That said, some performers do use pedal with Bach, just very sparingly to, say, add warmth. For a good example, check out Simone Dinnerstein’s tonebase lesson on Bach’s Concerto in D Minor, BWV 1052.

Classical Era (~1750-1820)

Pedals were nascent in the classical era, when composers like Franz Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) were composing. Because of that, composers often used the pedals very precisely to get specific effects—as opposed to assuming that it would be used throughout. Recall the example of Haydn’s “English Sonata,” above. For more on pedaling Beethoven, check out Garrick Ohlsson’s lesson.

Romantic Era (~1820-1900)

The Golden Era of pedaling, exemplified by the music of Frederic Chopin (1810-1849). As Seymour Bernstein notes, music in the Romantic Era often presupposes use of the pedal, even in cases where rests are also marked. However, pianists should be careful not to overdo it and muddy the texture of the music. Chopin, after all, was an ardent lover of J.S. Bach and marked pedal carefully in his scores. Garrick Ohlsson’s lesson on Chopin’s Barcarolle, Op. 60 (see “pedaling like a gondolier”) is another great place to go for nuanced pedaling advice.

Debussy and Ravel

People often associate post-romantic composers Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) with blur, and yet the Frenchmen demand precise use of the pedal. Debussy’s music includes few pedal markings because the composer believed that “pedaling cannot be written down” and must vary with the player, instrument, and setting. tonebase artist Jean-Yves Thibaudet notes that pedal should only be used “very sparingly” with Ravel and, in any case, never as a “cache-misère” (hider of misery)!

Bottom line: be thoughtful about how you pedal. Don’t pedal willy-nilly. Do it for a specific reason, or because of a specific marking you see in the score.

VI. What Part of the Foot to Use

If you listen to our podcast episode about pedaling, you’ll discover that there is a Great Unresolved Pedaling Controversy: no one can agree what part of the foot to use! Some, like Jerome Lowenthal, say it’s got to be the ball of the foot. Others, like Gwendolyn Mok, swear by the big toe.

Whatever you do, find a part of the foot that feels comfortable to pedal with, and over which you have a lot of control.

Additional Resources

You can find much more information about this and other topics at tonebase, featuring courses taught be esteemed pianists from around the world, for all levels of musician.

Below are links to a few other resources on pedaling from tonebase:

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