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17 minutes reading time (3438 words)

What Aspects of Teaching Pedaling Do You Think are Most Important?

Most aspects of piano playing and teaching show characteristics of both science and art. Some appear to be more on the "method" side of that spectrum, others on the "intuition" side. Pedaling seems to be significantly more than fifty percent art, due to the enormous variety and complexity of sounds that can emanate from the instrument, and also since physical dampers stopping vibrating strings of differing pitches and thicknesses is an acoustically "messy" affair. Of course, the flexibility and the art arise from that apparent messiness.

I have asked two very experienced teachers and pianists to share their ideas on the teaching of pedaling. Trevor Barnard is a retired university professor living in Australia, and he has spent a large part of his teaching career working with college students. Anne Marie Olson is a Suzuki piano teacher in Illinois, and most of her studio has been comprised of pre-college students. Taken together, their offerings here present a broad overview of many aspects of teaching pedaling.

Pedaling- responsible and educated interpretation

by Trevor Barnard

Pedaling is an area of piano teaching that unfortunately seems to receive scant attention from many teachers. My article on the subject, published in Clavier in September 1998, covered all its techniques in their basic form. In this essay I propose to go a stage further by examining aspects emanating from the basic knowledge of those techniques that will challenge the performer.

Learning to pedal would normally begin when the student has progressed from the beginning stage to an intermediate level. At the beginning of this stage I believe the teacher should first explain the reason for using the damper pedal (or sustaining pedal as it is often referred to), and then convey the four different techniques in gradual stages. Those pedal techniques are:

Direct pedaling

Legato pedaling (also called syncopated pedaling)


Flutter pedaling

While students may develop proficiency in pedaling, this expertise is normally restricted to the familiarity of their own and their teacher's piano. One burden a pianist has to carry during a playing career is that other pianos have physical differences—subtle to flagrant—from the ones the student is used to, so that an actual performance may have to be given on an instrument that is inherently different in responses to demands placed on it.

This experience is often brought home to me when conducting piano examinations. It may be that the candidate has the correct foot timing with pedal changes, and yet there is still some muddiness of sound when doing so. This is because the foot does not allow the pedal to come all the way up during changes, suggesting that there is a small, yet significant, physical difference between the student's own instrument and that used in the examination. This can be overcome by telling students of this possibility in advance, and training them to consciously be sure to come all the way up when changing, with the proviso that the foot should never be separated from the pedal at any time. Of course, this absolute approach applies to the technique of legato (syncopated)pedaling; a similar, yet modified approach would need to be taught when later introducing the more advanced techniques of half- and flutter pedaling.

It is necessary that the two techniques of direct and legato pedaling be introduced first, since mastery of the other two techniques cannot be achieved until the former are understood and fully in control and the student has progressed to more advanced repertoire where half- and flutter pedaling would come into their own.

Regarding the question of pedal familiarity, another aspect is that some pianos only have two pedals, whereas others have three. During the course of my examination duties I find that lack of confidence and/or nerves may sometimes result in candidates, when meaning to use the damper pedal, putting their right foot on the incorrect pedal. It may be that their own piano has only two pedals, but confusion or ignorance can intrude if the examination piano has three pedals. On an upright piano the middle pedal is usually a practice pedal where the sound is muted upon its depression. In a recent examination I took pity on a candidate who accidentally put her foot on the practice pedal, something I quickly corrected without penalty.

Direct pedaling

I first introduce the student to the easiest of the pedaling techniques, direct pedaling. This consists of going down with the foot at exactly the same time as playing the chosen sound, then releasing when appropriate; this means that there is a gap in sound before the next directly-pedaled sound. Such a procedure is used for enhancing tonal color, whereas this is often of secondary importance with legato pedaling (discussed below). That brings the question of interpretation into the picture. In music of the Baroque and Classical periods, using direct pedaling might offend some with a more "purist" view point. Since it is often arguable to say absolutely which is "wrong" or "right," the interpreter makes the final decision after hopefully giving the matter responsible and educated consideration.

Legato ​pedaling

I next introduce legato pedaling, since a high level of precision is required in this technique which creates a smooth transition from one sound to another without a gap. To achieve this cleanly requires a change of pedal immediately after the new note, interval, or chord is played. When the tempo is slow this is easy for the ears and eyes to assimilate. However, with a faster tempo where more rapid changes take place, it is sometimes difficult to actually tell whether this method is being used accurately enough; only the resultant sounds will tell if the results are successful.

Many students find it hard initially to change pedal immediately after a new sound is played. The tendency is to "up-down" with the foot on the actual change itself instead of afterwards. To help over-come this, I devised a three-part method. First, after the sound change takes place I ask the student to count two seconds before the pedal change, ignoring the inevitable blur of sound. Next, I ask the student to count just one second. Having practiced these preparatory steps, the student is more mentally and physically ready to take the final step of changing immediately after. Persistence with this method usually results in the student changing the pedal cleanly and confidently on a regular basis.

More advanced techniques: Half- and flutter pedaling

A passage from "La cathédrale engloutie" from Debussy's Préludes, Book 1, suggests the use of half-pedaling. The score indicates that the bass C-octaves have to last through the succeeding chords (see Excerpt 1).

It is obvious that full legato changes for each harmonic change will result in the original bass notes immediately disappearing, so a series of half changes can prevent this from happening completely. Again, the responses to the foot movement can vary from instrument to instrument, so the player needs to always be alert to this possibility.

There is also another option. The middle pedal of a grand piano is often the sostenuto pedal which can hold the bottom Cs, allowing the "escaping" chords to be pedaled without blurring. An interpretative decision has to be made as to which option is taken. However, one must keep in mind that if use of the sostenuto pedal is planned, it is possible that the performance piano will not provide such a facility. A further consideration is that the sostenuto pedal sound will be less atmospheric and drier (Debussy's pianos didn't even have them). It's also a good idea to check the performance piano before hand to ensure that the sostenuto pedal is fully functional.

Once a student has developed sufficiently in the normal course of events, the use of flutter pedaling is a useful tool to have in reserve for the appropriate occasion. By that time the student should be sufficiently developed musically to make interpretive decisions that, on occasion, may seem contradictory to what appears in the printed score.

Excerpt 1: Préludes, Book 1, “La cathédrale engloutie,” by Claude Debussy, mm. 28-34.

Flutter pedaling suggests itself in "Notturno" from Grieg's Lyric Pieces, Op. 54 (see Excerpt 2).

At mm. 29-32, the pedal instruction in the score indicates that the damper pedal should be held down without any change for all the measures. If followed literally, extreme muddiness of sound will occur during the last two bars. Alternatively, if a full change of pedal takes place in the penultimate bar, there will be an unnatural emptiness of sound. Neither way is musically satisfactory.

With short quick movements from the foot that cause the dampers to regularly brush the strings, the music's continuity is maintained and unpleasant blurriness is avoided. The interpreter should always keep in mind that composers and editors do occasionally err, like all humans, so an informed adjustment on occasion is quite in order.

Excerpt 2: “Notturno” from Lyric Pieces, Op. 54, No. 4, by Edvard Grieg, mm. 27-33.

Una corda

I have always followed the principle that when the composer inserts pianissimo then the use of the soft pedal (una corda) should be considered, but actually implemented only when appropriate to the musical context. For example, if there is activity taking place in the upper treble area or the section is extremely short, then there is little advantage in the pedal's use.

I hope my comments in this article are of some assistance since confident, accurate pedaling is one essential element to achieve quality of performance. Happy practicing and teaching!

The heart of the piano

by Anne Marie Olson

We often don't gain a true understanding of something until we have to teach it to others. This point was made clear to me when I was recently asked to present a work-shop on the use and teaching of the damper pedal. My first reaction was to remember with trepidation all the ambiguous pedal marks in recent pieces I've encountered—I've even had confusing pedal notations almost stop me from learning a piece of music! My second thought was, "I'm not a pedal expert!"

My ninety-minute presentation belied the hours—no,weeks—spent thinking, practicing, listening, discussing, observing students' feet,observing my feet, reading, studying scores, and writing. A violinist colleague was no help when she wryly asked,"So what's the deal? You press it down, you let it up. What else is there?!"

My most fascinating revelation? Not discovering the "real" meaning of various pedal notations; not figuring out composers' exact intent in pedaling indications; not knowing for sure if you are pedaling accurately, although these things are all certainly important considerations. Instead, I rediscovered that pedal use is about sound and listening, and deciding what you want to hear, keeping in mind the composer's probable intentions. In some music we may never know exactly what certain pedal notations (or the lack of them) mean.

Vladimir Horowitz called the damper pedal the "heart of the piano." Its effect on tone is comparable to the "soul" that vibrato elicits from a stringed instrument: it adds warmth, color, style, resonance, dynamics, breathing, and even rhythm. Our students may assume nothing more about the damper pedal except that it helps sustain and connect. I let them in on the vast tonal possibilities of the pedal, because they will never learn to listen for and develop a beautiful legato if they think the damper pedal is only for tone connection.

You can obediently follow the directions generated by a GPS, but you are likely to still get lost if you don't employ your brain and take note of your surroundings. Similarly, obediently following pedal marks will not magically "get you there," musically speaking. You still need to consult the rest of the score, employ your brain, and—even more importantly—engage your ears. Interpretation of pedal indications needs to be informed by the surrounding music, the composer's style and era, the type of the composition, and even he instrument for which the piece was written. If you have had the opportunity to hear or play Beethoven's music on a pianoforte of his day, you know that some of his pedal notations can sound hideous on today's piano, but magical on the instrument for which they were conceived.

First experiences for students

The first pedal lesson in my studio consists of opening up the piano and observing the interactions among the damper pedal, dampers, and strings. The first pedal notation used in many piano courses requires a simple down and up motion of the pedal (see Example 3).

Example 3: A typical first experience in pedal notation.

This type of notation looks (erroneously) as if the damper pedal should be depressed with the keys instead of slightly after. Sometimes educational composers, in other pieces of early-level music, make sure there is no chance for this pedaling to "bleed" one tone into the next. There is sometimes a staccato over the last pedaled note, or a rest before the next pedaled note (see Excerpt 4).

Early on,I make sure to point out the printed "misplacement" of the beginning of the pedal mark, and physically move it over on the page with a pencil. When teaching beginning syncopated pedaling, I teach students not to lift the damper pedal until after they have played the next tone, not simultaneously with the tone. Learning this way counteracts the impulse to lift the pedal too quickly. As students become more skilled at pedaling, this timing becomes second nature.

Excerpt 4: “Splashing in the Brook” from Accent on Solos, Level Two,by William Gillock, mm. 5-8.

Piano Adventures Technique and Artistry Level 2B, by the Fabers, has some very good introductory pedal exercises. The fourth technique secret is called "pedal pushers" (p. 3). It asks the student to practice lifting the right foot up (with heel on the floor) while hands are going down on the knees. This works well because the student doesn't have to worry about sound or correct notes, just the opposing motion of the foot and hands. The fourth technique secret in Level 3A (p. 3) is called "pedal rhythms," and introduces pedaling by ear. The pedal exercises in both these books are basic, yet detailed. In my studio I began watching and listening with new interest to what my students' feet were doing. I moved my teaching chair further away in order to observe students from head to toe.

Well-written elementary piano pieces can provide a great introduction for students beginning to use the damper pedal. "Sand Swirls" from Imaginations in Style by Bruce Berr (see Excerpt 5), offers detailed, non-syncopated pedal notation, while the music itself, although quite beautiful and imaginative, is relatively uncomplicated to play, allowing a student to give equal thought to learning the pedal changes.

Excerpt 5: “Sand Swirls” from Imaginations in Style, by Bruce Berr, mm. 1-10.

"Distant Chimes" from Frances Clark Supplementary Solos Book 1, by Jon George, employs standard syncopated pedal technique, but not an overwhelming number of pedal changes (see Excerpt 6).

Excerpt 6: “Distant Chimes” from Supplementary Solos, Level 1, by Jon George, mm. 1-16.

Students learn syncopated pedaling quickly in this piece because the motivational factor is high: quite simply, correct use of the damper pedal adds significantly more beauty to the other exquisitely composed aspects of this gem.

It's important to communicate this spirit of experimentation to students and encourage them to make some of the decisions. Claude Debussy's piano music generally has no pedal indications unless added by an editor (I understand he only indicated five in all his piano music!). Debussy's use of pedal may have been too delicate or detailed to notate. In Debussy: An Introduction to His Piano Music (Alfred), editor Margery Halford quotes from memoirs that Debussy's playing was "bathed in pedal."A student can learn much from apiece such as "Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum," ranging from fast and light syncopated pedaling, flutter pedaling to clear built-up resonance, half-pedal, rhythmic pedaling, and coloring with una corda.

The first movement of Beethoven's Sonata Op. 31, No. 2 ("The Tempest") provides more opportunities for pedaling decisions (see Excerpt 7).

The two recitative passages in measures 143-148 and 153-158 offer a chance to create some beautiful sounds with both the damper pedal and una corda, enhanced by sympathetic vibrations. Editor Donald Tovey suggests silently pressing down a handful of keys below the arpeggiated chords being played in mm. 143 and 153. Holding these keys down keeps the dampers off the strings and allows them to vibrate sympathetically with the other notes being played with half- and quarter-pedal changes. With the una corda down as well, the effect is haunting and unearthly, as Beethoven intended.

Excerpt 7: Sonata in D Minor, Op. 31, No. 2, Mvt. 1, by Ludwig vanBeethoven, mm. 137-151.

Elementary students don't need to wait until they're advanced to experience the sounds of sympathetic vibrations. In the following two pieces, those experiences await them (see Excerpts 8 and 9).

Excerpt 8: “I Hear an Echo” from Adventures in Time and Space, by Mary Magdalen Magau, mm. 1-4.
Excerpt 9: “Ghosts of a Sunken Pirate Ship” from Coral Reef Suite, by Carol Klose,mm. 1-4.

Additional pedaling ideas

How a composer notates pedaling must be interpreted. We always need to take into consideration the surrounding music and style to determine pedal use. Sometimes a composer will notate pedal only when the pedal pattern changes. This does not mean the part of the music with no pedal notation should not be pedaled. Or, sometimes composers write "with pedal" or "col pedale" in the first measure of the music, leaving the execution throughout the piece to the performer.

Pedal changes are not always harmonically driven. "A Faded Letter" from Lyric Preludes in Romantic Style by William Gillock is an excellent piece to practice coordinating pedaling with a right-hand melody (see Excerpt 10).

Excerpt 10: “A Faded Letter” from Lyric Preludes in Romantic Style,by William L. Gillock, mm. 5-8.

"If you think it's a pedaling problem, it may instead be a balance problem." This piece of information from a lesson with Bruce Berr shed a huge amount of light on a number of puzzling situations! The effect balance has on pedaling occurs in Debussy's "Reverie." If the left hand accompaniment figure is truly played pp, the damper pedal will not have to be changed for every melodic note (see Excerpt 11).

Excerpt 11: “Reverie” by Claude Debussy, mm. 1-9.

Some contemporary composers provide more pedal indications than others. Christos Tsitsaros, pianist and composer at University of Illinois, usually provides detailed, artistic pedal notations. His Cinderella Suite is full of imaginative pedal markings. Movement seven, "The Prince's Proclamation" imitates the sound of low brass in measures 3-6: the composer cautions not to over-pedal this and other measures like it, following the principle that the lower the melody, the more pedal changes will be needed. In this passage, pedaling needs to be shallow and changed on every beat (see Excerpt 12). However, in the final movement of the suite, "Grand Finale: The Royal Wedding," a most amazing sound is created by holding the pedal down on low notes through several measures at a time (pp is very important to carry this off). This becomes almost a sound effect: the buzz and excitement of a joyous crowd at a magnificent wedding is brought to life wonderfully with this pedaling! (See Excerpt 13.)

Pedaling low tones may require attention in yet another way: large pedal movements in order to completely dampen the strings. For example, in Chopin's Mazurka, Op. 67, No. 4, lifting the pedal foot high for the low A in measure 9 also gives physical emphasis to the beginning of the phrase, an important musical event (see Excerpt 14).

I give much thought to making pedal decisions in the beginning stages of both my students' and my own music. Early consideration of pedaling is integral to fully expressing sound, color, and style. Although pedal notations can sometimes be confusing, I no longer overlook the part that I, as pianist and teacher, play in making pedaling choices. Above all, sound is my navigator. I'm willing to "get lost"and experiment with sound. The Damper Pedal Police are only imaginary! In addition to using my ears and the "map," I try to begin my journey with a big trunkful of imagination!

Excerpt 12: “The Prince’s Proclamation” from Cinderella Suite,by Christos Tsitsaros, mm.1-6.
Excerpt 13: “Grand Finale: The Royal Wedding” from Cinderella Suite,by Christos Tsitsaros, mm. 1-9.
Excerpt 14: Mazurka in A Minor, Op. 67, No. 4, by Frédéric Chopin, mm. 1-11.

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