Archive for December, 2009

Pedalling – Part 3 Sostenuto

Fancy pedal lyre

If you can make it through this post without confusion, you’ll be considered an educated PRO!  The middle pedal has actually 5…count ’em FIVE usages that i’ve seen… so here goes… follow if you can… starting from the authentic usage…

1. If the right pedal is known as the sustain pedal and sustains the notes, the middle pedal – known as the sostenuto, also ‘sostenuto’s the notes.  Y’see, the word sostenuto in Italian actually means ‘sustain’.  So there are two sustain pedals on a piano? Well… yes and no.  The right sustain pedal lifts all of the dampers on the piano.  The middle pedal is actually what one might call a ‘selective’ sustain.  Sustain happens only to the notes that are depressed on the keyboard.   The two pedals are quite different in how they operate.  While the damper/sustain pedal is connected to a long rail that has physical contact with the dampers, the sostenuto pedal only enables a ‘trip switch’ to hold the dampers up that were once depressed.  The technique required then is to depress a  the key – then hit the switch (sostenuto pedal) and the pedal will sustain only the notes related to the keys depressed.  Sostenuto is ONLY an on/off control.  Unlike the sustain where you can achieve many shades or levels of the damping, the sostenuto either holds the notes or it doesn’t.    There is no middle ground.

2. Ok to make yet MORE confusion… MOST upright pianos have opted out for a simpler ‘bass damper’ approach.  Rather than the ‘selective sustain’, the bass damper simply lifts the entire bass section.  Why? Because sostenuto playing USUALLY involves just damping the bass – holding those notes and changing the top keys in some way.

Practice mute

3.  If your piano comes from anywhere in Asia, the middle pedal has NOTHING to do with sostenuto or bass damper AT ALL!  It is called a ‘practice mute’ pedal.  Due to the fact that in Asia, MANY of the homes are either in close quarters or in apartments, the sostenuto was done away with and this mute was installed.  It simply cuts the volume by 30-40%

4. Digital ‘silent’ option.  Some of the newer and, i might add more expensive pianos have a digital mechanism installed that blocks the hammers all together and replaces that with a digital piano! Yep, you can plug in your headphones and play without making a sound.  Only problem is… this option costs usually another $5000-10,000! Ouch.

5.  This quite possibly is one ‘feature’ that time and again makes me laugh.  Because many people NEVER look inside their piano, the middle pedal is sometimes connected to NUTTIN’!! HAHAA true story.  I’ve opened up many a piano and there’s a pedal there… and there’s absolutely NO connection to any other part of the piano.  It’s purely cosmetic! Well that just simply makes me laugh out loud.  But i must say, on the check list of pianos when people are shopping i quite often hear the words “oh good…3 pedals”.

So there you have it… the list of 5 usages for the middle pedal – from sostenuto to stylizer.

Just Pedalling Part 2

So we looked at the most important pedal, sustain in Just Pedalling Part 1.  In this post we’ll look at the remaining 2 pedals.  The left pedal correctly named the “Una Corda” pedal is an Italian term with a translation that simply means ‘one string’.  On every piano, 6 out of the 7 octaves of notes have more than one string.  This means then that one hammer is either striking 3 strings simultaneously or 2 strings (depending on how low).  The very bottom notes only have one string.  If you depress the left pedal on a grand, watch the keys because the ENTIRE keyboard shifts about an 1/8 of an inch to the right.  Physically what is happening is that the hammers are shifted out of alignment so that they are no longer hitting 3 strings but rather two (one string is left off – thus una corda).  And so the piano becomes quieter because it is not hitting all 3 strings.  But something else is happening.  Piano hammers get grooves in them because they strike the same position all the time.  When you depress the U.C. (una corda)  (funny… my teacher used to simply write U.C. in my music… apparently we were supposed to know what that was about…lol) the piano also takes on a different sound due to the fact that the alignment of the grooves in the hammers are also out of sync.  This strike of the hammer is now on ‘fresh’ ungrooved felt and makes the piano not only quieter, but mellower. (is mellower even a word?)  So that is the CORRECT way U.C. is to work.  On uprights, the keyboard cannot move and so it operates COMPLETELY different.  Due to the fact that there is no side to side movement, how does one make the piano quieter? Simply by installing a governor – which is a ceiling or a cap on the volume.  If you try and clap your hands but only allow your hand to go only 5″ apart, how loud can you clap? Not that loud because distance creates velocity and velocity, volume.  In the case of piano hammers, uprights simply move the hammers closer to the strings to create the pseudo soft playing effect.  Is it effective? Not really… for 2 reasons.  One is that the touch gets drastically affected.  When the hammers move forward, most pianos then have ‘gaps’ in the touch because it has travelled the hammers towards the strings.  Problem 2 – there is no ‘fresh felt’ kind of sound like grands have.  It doesn’t move the hammers out of the grooves.

Well… just when i thought i’d cover 2 pedals on one post, i’ve run out of both steam and time.  Stay tuned for pedalling #3 on the sostenuto pedal… and the 4 variations! It’s a doozer!

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