Teaching pedalling on the piano is one of the more difficult tasks for many piano teachers. Piano students are very enthusiastic about using the pedal (what a cool effect it produces after all!) but the result is often either a choppy, disjointed blunder or a muddy, blurred ball of indiscernible sound.
That “middle ground” of beautiful legato is difficult to achieve for young students. And while it is something that takes time to perfect, with a few adjustments to how we teach pedalling we won’t need to grin and bear the butchering of beauty 😉
Learn To Blend And Avoid The “Bunny Hop”
One of the many things I thank my father for is teaching me to drive standard. I learned to drive on one of the most difficult vehicles around – a standard truck with no power steering and a tricky clutch. I pick up on things fairly quickly in other areas of my life, but driving standard was not one of these things. I bunny-hopped and stalled my way down the roads for way longer than I should have. I just couldn’t “get it”.
My dad is the master of patience, but I think even he was getting sick of me. He suggested that perhaps we should switch to my mom’s car instead (an automatic). I decided to give it one last shot and it was one simple sentence that changed everything for me: “Just listen to the engine.” It was a flippant comment made by my dad as I panicked and attempted to lurch my way down the road in first gear.
But it clicked for me. The careful balance of clutch and gas all of a sudden made sense. It wasn’t one or the other… it was a blending of both.
Solving Pedalling Problems
Students are somewhat set up for failure when it comes to pedalling. Their legs are short, their coordination is still developing, and the pedal markings on their page seem to show a very clear “now my foot is up… now my foot is down” sequence without really representing any sort of blending. Children do not specialize in subtlety… they need your help. Try these ways of approaching pedalling with your students to help them find the correct sound when pedalling:
1. Fix the obvious first. Is their bench at the right height? Are they the correct distance from the piano? Does their heel remain on the ground while using the pedal? Are they using their ankle as a hinge? Young children may need to use pedal extenders to be able to reach.
2. Listen to the Engine – or in this case the piano. Good pedalling happens when students are really listening. Watching pedalling markings on their page is not as effective as listening to what they are playing. Don’t get caught up in the “down up down up” or the drawing of arrows. Instead, have them actively listen. Not only will you help them develop a musical ear, but they will gain that musical instinct that we all possess as teachers after years of pedalling. Explain the effect you are looking for and demonstrate, but don’t let them watch your foot… have them listen. Can they replicate the sound?
3. Good pedalling requires quick and light foot movements. Practice having them lift the pedal in varying degrees. Can they lift it off completely? Half-way? A quarter of the way? Have them practice these “degrees of lift” without sound and working slowly first and then building up to faster foot movements.
4. Effectively teach blending. This is key to avoiding a choppy or a muddy sound. I’ve always found it to be counterproductive to say to a child “When your hand goes down your foot comes up”. It’s asking for choppiness. Instead, use words like “nudge the pedal” and “blend the sound”. The “up and down” terminology is not helpful to a child who will often view things as being cut and dry. We’ve all seen those students who use their knee to completely pop off the pedal and then stomp back down on it. They’re using the “up and down” thought process… and it’s difficult to break this habit. Just as with clutch and gas – it’s not one or the other… it’s a careful balance of both.
5. Don’t shy away from pieces that use the pedal. Introduce the pedal early and continue to select repertoire that requires pedal use. This often means supplementing regular method books, but the more your student uses the pedal the better they will be. Without regular exposure, those occasional “pedal pieces” will be a foray into uncharted territory each and every time.