First Steps in Pedalling

Guest Post  by Margaret Murray McLeod

This post is an exclusive excerpt from this month’s Piano Teacher Talk – the online newsletter from EPTA UK. The whole newsletter is also available as a PDF at the end of this excerpt, with the kind permission of EPTA.

In this month’s EPTA post, Margaret Murray McLeod offers much-needed advice on pedalling…

First Step:  How to be a Musical Scientist.

The difference between Hearing and Listening is not always appreciated, especially by children who are bombarded daily by being told what or what NOT to do!

From the very first lessons we should encourage our pupils to listen, not just to how a note begins, but right to its end. The problem with the piano is that after an explosive start a note immediately starts to fade; it cannot crescendo on a note like most other instruments.

Listening becomes even more crucial when a pupil begins to use the sustaining pedal; not only should they know how the instrument works (all those fascinating moving bits inside) but they should begin to understand how to control the sound.

So, let them do some investigating…

Some Experiments:

  1. First play a piece to your pupil without pedal and then with. Can they describe the difference?
  2. With their back to the piano can they say which version has pedal when you play again?
  3. Using a stop-watch or a watch with a second hand, play Middle C, mezzo forte. Listening closely, how long does it last WITHOUT pedal and then WITH?
    WITHOUT pedal it lasts [ … ] seconds.
    WITH pedal it lasts [ … ] seconds.
  4. Does a LOUD note last longer than a QUIET note?
  5. Compare high notes and low notes:
    HIGH NOTE lasts [ … ] seconds
    MIDDLE NOTE lasts [ … ] seconds
    LOW NOTE lasts [ … ] seconds

Listen to the throbbing of the low note as it dies away. Fascinating!

Second Step:  Watch and Learn

Now it is time to change from Listening to Looking.

If you have a grand piano this is easy, but if you teach on an upright piano and cannot remove the front, your pupil could look inside from the top; they may need to stand on a stool to do so. Or you could find a picture of the inside of a piano (quite a few available online).

Ask them how many strings there are to each key, in the treble, the middle bass and lowest notes? Why are there three different types of strings?

If they can hold a finger close to one of the bass strings while you play the note, they can feel it tickling their finger as it vibrates! Great fun!

Let them watch the hammers as you play a scale. Can they see what stops the note vibrating as you release each key?

Explain why they are called “dampers”. Don’t be afraid to tell them the names of the moving parts, even if they are quite young; they will soon begin to remember the words as you use them.

Now, can they see what happens when you depress the sustaining pedal? Play an arpeggio or group of notes so they can hear the effect. I find that pupils, especially the younger ones, get quite excited to see all this amazing action inside the piano.

At last they are ready to sit down to use the pedal themselves!

Third Step

The importance of how the pupil sits at the keyboard cannot be stressed enough. While we may like to start pupils early using the pedal, it is essential that they can sit comfortably with the heel on the ground.

There are devices on the market (such as this one) that can be placed over the pedals so that smaller children can work them, but they are expensive, and obviously both the teacher and the pupil would need to have one.

Many players sit too far back on the stool. Sit on the front part, feet on the ground, placing the ball of the foot over the pedal.

First they need to get used to depressing and releasing the pedal, and simple counting exercises can be used. While counting 4, press down on 1 and up on 3, for instance.

I usually teach direct pedalling first, and this can be employed easily and simply in many elementary pieces. Schumann’s Soldiers’ March, for instance, where pedal down on the first beat and up on the second gives the start of each four-bar phrase an added impetus, rather like a drumbeat. The two final cadence chords are reinforced by a quick down-up on each chord.

Invent some simple exercises using broken chord figures or chord patterns, always allowing space (a rest) where the foot comes up. Very soon the pupil will be able to move on to that vital skill: legato pedalling.

Margaret Murray McLeod  ARAM, FTCL, ARCM, LRAM

Margaret has appeared regularly in concerts throughout the UK, recorded for BBC Scotland and South German Radio, and played piano and harpsichord with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. An international examiner for ABRSM for many years, Margaret lectured and conducted workshops extensively both at home and abroad, and regularly contributed to the Associated Board’s Teaching Notes.

She is Regional Organiser for East of Scotland, and a member of the Management committee of EPTA-UK.

Margaret Murray McLeod’s website

Margaret’s series on pedalling continues in the EPTA Piano Teacher Talk newsletter, available to non-members exclusively on Pianodao each month.

Copyright © Margaret Murray McLeod.  Used with permission.

EPTA Piano Teacher Talk No.3 (November 2018)

This article is drawn from the EPTA Teacher Talk newsletter. If you would like to read more from and about EPTA UK, please download:

pdf-logo   Piano Teacher Talk No.3

Special Thanks to Murray McLachlan, Karen Marshall, and Liz Dewhurst.

Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs Keyquest Music - his successful independent music education business, private teaching practice and creative outlet.

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