On Teaching

January 18, 2013

Organ Method V

This follows directly from last month’s column. The approach to learning pedal playing that I am outlining here is not materially different from that in my columns on pedal playing between November 2007 and February 2008. Here it is recast as something addressed directly to the student, which the student can use with or without a teacher. This month’s column simply introduces the notion of learning the feeling of moving a foot from one note to the adjacent note. This feeling is, as far as I can tell, the best foundation upon which to build solid pedal facility.


Looking at the pedals while playing

Everyone is tempted to look at the feet, either from time to time or quite regularly. However, each time that you look at your feet while you are working on a pedal exercise or trying to learn a pedal part you deprive yourself of a chance to become more secure in your pedal playing. You might or might not increase your chance of accurately finding the note that you are looking for. Security at the pedal keyboard comes from a firm inner sense of the physical shapes and distances involved—the kinesthetics of the pedal keyboard. Any time that you do not rely on that sense, you fail to develop it further. Of course, the reason that players, especially beginners, are temped to look at the feet is the fear that this physical sense of where the pedal keys are will fail. In fact, this sense can become extraordinarily reliable: it must, since the practice of looking at the pedal keyboard can be quite problematic if it is used at all regularly. (Looking at the feet makes it easy to lose your place in the music, and it tends to introduce small hesitations into playing.) The pedal exercises and learning strategy used here will enable you to rely on the kinesthetic sense from the very beginning—the sequence of exercises has been designed with that particularly in mind. In turn, relying on that sense from the very beginning will make it reliable. You will be comfortable looking at your feet very little indeed—or not at all. This approach asks you from the very beginning to understand what is going on physically in your pedal playing, and to participate quite consciously and actively in the creation of your own particular pedal technique. This has the added advantage of making the process more interesting.


Heel and toe

Playing pedals means pushing down pedal keys with the feet. In theory any part of the foot can be used to depress a pedal key, but the front and back of the foot—the toe area and the heel—are the most useful. Further, the toe area, at least, can be thought of as divided into parts: the inside of the foot, or big toe side, the outside of the foot, or little toe side, and the front or center of the foot, under the middle toes—the tip of the shoe. (The heel area could be thought of as divided into similar regions, however the shape and size of the heel makes it more natural to think of it as a continuum.) All of these areas are completely suitable for playing pedal keys. The choice of which particular part of the foot to use in playing which notes is referred to as pedaling—the pedal version of fingering. As with fingering, pedaling choices are influenced by many factors. Some of these are directly about the music: the shape of a musical line, considerations of tempo, articulation, and phrasing. However, pedaling choices are also affected by logistic factors that are independent of the music itself: the height of the bench, the exact shape and size of the pedal keyboard—including details such as the size of the sharps/flats in relation to the naturals—and the physique and habitual posture of the player. Pedaling choices for the same passage of music, and overall tendencies in pedaling choices, will vary from one player to the next depending on all of the factors mentioned above; plus different types of repertoire require different approaches to pedaling.


Flexing the foot

The physical gesture involved in playing a pedal key with the toes is a gesture that can take advantage of the full flexing ability of the foot. Playing with the heel can take much less advantage of that flexing, since the heel is located much closer to the ankle, and does not move up and down very much with the flexing of the foot. Playing with the heel is, therefore, a gesture that is controlled somewhat more with the leg. It is easier, in the earlier stages of learning to play pedals, to execute toe pedaling with a relaxed and fluid motion than it is heel playing. (In the long run it is just as possible to play in a relaxed and fluid manner with the heels: that is just something that comes about more naturally after a player is familiar with the pedal keyboard and comfortable on the organ bench.) It is also the case that the gesture of flexing the foot and, in a sense, reaching with the toes is a gesture that feels like pointing: it is easy and natural for even someone who is not yet a trained organist to know by feel where the toes are and where they are pointing. Again, it is not a problem—it is not difficult—to develop an equally secure sense of this for the heels: it just naturally comes later. Therefore, the first several pedal exercises that I provide are all meant to be played with the toes alone. Heel playing will be introduced shortly.

If we leave aside any artificial assistance, such as looking, or bumping the feet along the keys until you find the one you want, there are three ways to get a pedal note right: 

1) finding a note in relation to where the foot that will play that note last was

2) finding a note with one foot in relation to where the other foot is; and 

3) finding a note “from scratch,” in relation to where your body is on
the bench. 

The first of these—which includes both moving the toe area of the foot from one note to another, and playing a note with the heel when you have just played another note with the toe—is the most reliable, and the most powerful tool for developing secure pedal facility. The other two come into play once in a while. The exercises and practice techniques that we start with here rely on—and strengthen—the first way of finding notes. Later on we will address the other two. 

You have already noted which pedal key each of your feet rests on (or over) as you sit in a relaxed posture on the organ bench. Draw a pedal stop or two: make sure that you include at least one 8 stop. Now, without looking, flex one of your feet in such a way that the toe area of that foot moves downward and plays something. What do you hear? You might hear a note; you might hear two adjacent notes. Notice what part of your foot actually touched and depressed the key. In general, most of us cannot play pedal notes “straight,” that is, with the tip of the shoe. Most feet are too wide for that. If you hear yourself playing two notes at once, then you need to turn your foot slightly so that one side or the other is touching the key. In general, people with wider feet need to turn more than people with narrower feet. There are some players whose feet are in fact narrow enough that they can play with the very end of the foot. If you find yourself to be one of those people, then you can ignore most of what I have to say about turning the foot to one side or another.

But assuming that you do need to turn your foot, which way should you turn? The fundamental answer to this is “whichever way is more comfortable.” Usually, in any given situation, one way will be definitely more comfortable than the other. If this is not the case—if they both feel much the same—then either will probably be fine. In general, however, if the note that you want to play is outside wherever your knee is then it will feel comfortable to turn the foot out and play from the big toe side; if the note that you want to play is inside wherever your knee is then it will probably work best to turn the foot in and play from the little toe side. (Outside means higher for a right-foot note and lower for a left-foot note; inside mean the opposite.) In first playing the note that lies under each foot, try turning each way. Is one easier or more comfortable? Which one? Does it conform to what I have suggested (outside/inside) or does it feel different from what that would predict? (Once you have turned each foot enough to play its note cleanly, make sure that you know what note it is. If you have perfect pitch, you will know. If not, play around on a manual keyboard until you match the pitch, then see what note it is. This is practice in not looking at your feet!) Fortunately, there are only two directions in which to turn your foot in order to play a pedal note, so it is always possible to try both and see which one works better. (Of course, by the time you perform a piece you should have worked this out long before.) There is enough variation among different people in the comfortable positioning of the knees—that is, in how close together or far apart the knees naturally fall while sitting on the organ bench—that it is not a good idea to try to come up with a general rule for which way a player should turn the feet for which notes. You the student must discover this for yourself. Furthermore, it is not something that is fixed. That is, you will not always turn each foot the same way for a given note, every time you play that note. Some particular musical or technical context may cause you to position a knee differently, which will change the angle of the foot, or something about the direction of a musical line—where the foot is going next—may affect things, perhaps in ways that can’t be predicted in advance.


From one note to another

Once you have played your one note with each foot, play the next natural note up and the next natural note down. You should achieve this in the following way: gently release the first note; then move the foot—in the air just above the pedal keyboard—through a very small arc that you guess might take it to the space over the next (natural) note. When you have arrived at that place, again flex your toes downward and play the note over which you have arrived. Let your ears tell you whether you have indeed come to the next note up or down. It is fairly likely that you will have gone too far. This is common, in fact almost universal at this stage. The gesture of moving one foot from one note to the next note is one of the smallest things that we humans ever do with our feet; it takes some getting used to. If you have gone too far—if the new note that you have just played is a third away from your starting note, or even more—then go back to your starting note and try again. Move less far. Don’t think that you have to know exactly how much less far you need to move before you try it: just move less far. This thought and gesture will probably bring you to the correct note. It might lead you to drop down into the space between your starting note and the note that you were hoping to play next. If so, then go back to the opening note and this time move your foot a little bit farther. 

This thought process is crucial to the work of learning to play pedals. In learning and in practicing you are trying things out. Everything will not be right the first time. The good news is that if you play a wrong note in working on a pedal exercise or a pedal part, only one of two things can have gone wrong: either you moved your foot too far or you didn’t move it far enough. Furthermore, you can tell by listening which of these things happened. The way to arrive at correct practicing is simply to go back to the starting point, and move the foot again, correcting that motion in whichever direction is indicated. If you went too far before, go less far now; if you didn’t go far enough before, go farther now. It is not necessary to try to calculate how much farther or less far to go: in fact, it is counterproductive to get too specific about it. It is always a small amount. 

This way of thinking about it always gives good results. 

After you have become comfortable moving each foot from the starting note (the note over which the foot naturally falls) to the adjacent notes up and down, try the same thing elsewhere on the keyboard. Move each foot around, to random places, in both directions. Then, after playing a note, move up, back, down, always moving by one step at a time, always moving the foot just up off the key that you have been playing and through the air to the next note. Always pay attention to the comfortable tilting of the foot to one side or the other. Note that this may change from one note to the adjacent note. Never accept an uncomfortable foot.




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