Posts tagged sustain
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.
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.
Did you know that you can spell the word pedalling with two L’s or one? huh… the things you learn… i learned early on in teaching that you can either practice or practise. ANYWAY… i was on the phone with my sister the other day (piano teacher extraordinaire) and i was telling her about my piano blog… she said “For goodness sakes – do one on pedalling!!!” And so here it is… (shout out to my sister lol).
Just to clear up any misconceptions; the pedals on a piano are not GAS, BRAKE and CLUTCH. They’re also not LOUD, MEDIUM and SOFT(which is usually the 2nd guess). The 3 pedals are 3 S’s: SUSTAIN, SOSTENUTO and SOFT or alternatively: DAMPER, BASS SUSTAIN and UNA CORDA. Either works really. Today, however, we’re just going to look at one pedal – the most used by FAR, which is the right pedal known as the sustain/damper. If you ever see someone playing an electronic piano and they have a cord down to the floor with one pedal, it’s gonna be this one. The percentage of use for sustain vs. the other two is probably around 95% sustain, 4% soft and about 1% sostenuto. So the sustain/damper does it all really. To piano playing i call this pedal the ‘mortar to the bricks’. This pedal practically ‘fills the cracks’ when you play the piano. It is used to connect what your fingers can’t hold on to. So imagine you’re at the piano, you’re playing lots of notes at one time – you then need to almost instantaneously move to another group of notes. Most times you will audibly hear a gap in between those two sets of notes. You can, however give the impression that notes are somehow ‘connected’ by moving quickly from one to the next. Quite a lot of the time though, you just can’t change positions that quickly and thus the need for the sustain pedal. The sustain pedal keeps the strings ‘live’ by sustaining the notes. This is accomplished through the dampers (thus both names for this pedal). When the dampers are not sitting on the strings, they are allowed to resonate freely. So while your fingers are moving to the next notes, the sustained tones from the last chord will continue to resonate until you arrive at the keys. Make sense? Then when you come to the next chord, the damper pedal is released, effectively bridging the gap between the notes. The most difficult part of this pedal is the timing because you need to think ‘bridge’ ALL the time. After a while though it becomes second nature.
I was at a home recently where i was tuning. The lady called me a day later and commented on how her piano didn’t sound that good after i left. I was thinking to myself that i had somehow done an inadequate tuning and promised to stop in. When i sat at the piano, i rattled off an old song i knew by heart and she said “How come it doesn’t sound like that when i play?” lol… it was because she had yet to learn about the damper pedal. I must say that the damper DOES make you sound more professional… but only when executed properly. Give it a try. You’ll like it. Promise.
I was 22 years of age when i was hired by the local Baldwin piano store. The owner was a technician and the first words out of his mouth were “Glen, you may be educated in performance but i just want to tell you that because you know how to DRIVE the car, don’t presume that you know how the car works”. He then proceeded to tell me that the mechanic is not the driver in the Formula1. And so i took his advice to heart. I began to learn about the insides of the piano. I will say however, that being a driver and a mechanic both have distinct advantages. I remember this boss calling me to his workshop to try out a newly rebuilt piano. He’s all smiles and with big outstretched arms he points to the piano… “VOILA!” He asks me to play. I remember not being impressed by the piano and how put off he was because i couldn’t properly articulate what it was i didn’t like about the piano. And then it occurred to me that regardless of what your thoughts are re: the makeup of the instrument, it’s the driver still that counts – they’re the ones who are going to play this instrument.
So how do you properly test drive an instrument? It’s funny because i get lots of students through my doors looking for pianos and who do they get to preview the piano? Why, the teacher no less. But again, teachers are drivers and usually have very little understanding of what is going on in the piano. They walk around the instrument and give the ol’ inspection “mmm hmmm’s” but don’t really know what to say. LOL…ok this is funny – so you know the grand lid on a piano? It’s the 45 degree angled part held up by what is called a prop stick. After previewing a Steinway grand for her client… she finally said. “SOooooo, this is one of those ‘one-stick’ pianos”. (most pianos have 2 or 3) OK ok ok… i thot it was funny… kinda like judging the car by the antennae. Anyway… here are some tricks and tips on testing pianos:
- Test the piano at different volume levels. My trumpet teacher used to say “any 2 year old can blat a horn – it takes a master to play it quietly”. Much is the same at the piano. If a piano is ever going to misfire, it will be at soft volumes
- Play each key – find out if there are any sticking or problem notes – listen especially for buzzes and rattles
- Find the crossover. The crossover is the spot where the bass copper coloured strings change to steel strings. This is usually a problematic place on most pianos for consistency. Great pianos will have a very gradual change in tone.
- Sustain. Sustain is your friend. Take one note – moderate volume – play it and listen to how long it takes to die away. If it’s short lived, quite often the soundboard (the amplifier) is dead.
- Excessively loose or heavy action. Take one key – depress the notes on either side then grab hold of the sides of the key and wiggle it back and forth – left to right. Does it ‘knock’? Worn out pianos usually will have a notable ‘click’ here. As well, lift the very front of the key by the overhang – ever so slightly (you don’t want to rip off the keytop!) It should rise only about 1/16″ but it should also fall on it’s own weight. Newer pianos quite often are tight and if there’s too much friction here, they won’t fall back to rest position.
- Finally, test the workings of the pedals. Make sure the damper blocks lift simultaneously and in a comfortable manner.
Oh there are many many other tests you can do… but these will cover the basics. Enjoy!