If you’re just starting out using the pedal on your piano, you’ll be finding yourself becoming accustomed to a whole new method of coordinating, by the inclusion of the feet! (To this I say Sorry! As if you are at this level, you’ll no doubt have very recently started to find playing piano more of a fluid experience, ah the joys of music!)
The pedal has changed over the years alongside the development of the Piano as an instrument, and today we are lucky to be able to use it with a level of subtlety that was not available to our Classical contemporaries. Today, we traditionally use the pedal in syncopation with what we are playing (that is, we change the pedal as the hands go down, and not on the beat… this is a very general statement, but largely true for basic pedal phrasing).
Now before the instrument existed as we know it now, earlier versions of the piano would have had much less efficient dampers, making an early pedal lift essential for it to work. In addition to this, the direct pedal was also the norm (that is where the pedal and the hands go up and down together as opposed to the syncopated way we use it today). This is why in some editions; the composer’s pedal markings might vary from what we might naturally do. So do be careful when following the pedal markings on the score!
I’d like to share some examples of other pedals, as on early pianos you could have as many as five pedals, which all add separate effects to the instrument. Of course, there is the sustain (or “damper) pedal which I am discussing today, but there is also the una corda, which does still exist on most pianos today. This pedal is now found on the far left, and it softens the tone of the instrument. This was originally achieved by moving the entire keyboard up, so that the hammers only hit “one string”, hence the name. Another pedal which you certainly wouldn’t find on most pianos is the Bassoon Pedal, which is great fun to use. It restricts the resonance of the strings with a thin bar, creating, you guessed it – a sound similar to that of the Bassoon in the lower registers.
In the end, pedaling will become second nature, so don’t worry if you’re being overly conscious of your foot’s actions! It will develop like a muscle, and you will probably find yourself having to reel it in! Always be conscious of the period that your piece was written in! We don’t want to be blurring any nice crisp Baroque semiquaver passages! As you know of course :)
Here is a video of someone demonstrating the pedals on an early instrument: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ROxwAmMtEp8