On Teaching

April 3, 2013

Gavin Black is the Director of the Princeton Early Keyboard Center in Princeton, New Jersey. He can be reached, to offer thoughts about the column or for any other purpose, at [email protected].


Organ Method VII

This month’s column starts with a discussion of the ways of using excerpts from repertoire as pedal exercises—even very early in the process of learning to play pedals. I have always suggested this to my own students, and, as long as it is approached correctly from a technical point of view, it has the great advantage of being really interesting, more so than most scales and exercises. 

We are, these days, in a kind of flux about availability of printed music, and it is not absolutely clear how to best provide students with written musical material. I am inclined to direct students to the various ways of finding pieces, especially those that are Internet-based, and thus convenient, being almost instant. That is, I do not expect to include as part of this method an anthology of pieces or to publish one separately. The wide and easy availability of music makes it simple for students to choose their own pedal passages, for example, though of course with as much guidance as a teacher (or a method) needs to give. All the passages that I mentioned at the end of last month’s column, for example, can be found through the Internet with ease. I am very interested in readers’ thoughts and experiences on this point.

The method will contain several “sidebars” or charts and explanations of various practical matters. These will include a definition of the pedaling notation—including mention of my own preference for O for heel, rather than U. (I think that it is less likely to be confused with or mistaken for V), and a description of the pitch notation that I employ (C meaning the lowest c on the keyboard, c meaning middle c, and so on). These are all matters that are not needed in the context of these column excerpts, and the question of where and how to include them will in the end be one of layout and typography. However, if anyone reading these columns sees something that I appear to have failed to explain, I would certainly appreciate hearing about it.

This month’s excerpt ends with a bit about heel playing, which will then be the main subject of next month’s excerpt. That will round off the chapter on learning pedal playing, though of course pedal playing will be discussed later on in the context of putting hands and feet together and learning pieces.


Analyzing a pedal passage

The key to using passages from repertoire for pedal practice in the early stages of learning to play pedals is to approach the process systematically. Working on passages like this will move your pedal playing along most quickly and lead to the most solid results.

As an example of how to analyze and practice a pedal passage, let us look at the Bach Pedal Exercitium. The opening of the piece is shown in Example 1. Through this much of the piece, and indeed for most of the rest of it as well, a pedaling in which the toes of the two feet alternate—an “alternate-toe pedaling”—is suitable. If the left toes play the first note, and the toes alternate from then on, the pedaling is very comfortable. Once a pedaling is set, then it is possible to practice the feet separately. This is often a good idea for learning any pedal part, even for experienced players. It is a crucial part of good practice technique for the early stages of learning pedal playing. 

The left-foot part of the opening of the Pedal Exercitium begins as shown in Example 2, and the right-foot part begins as shown in Example 3.

(I have written these as eighth notes. They should be played detached, since they represent sixteenth notes and, in effect, sixteenth-note rests in between the notes. Of course, the pedaling in which you use the same toes for successive notes creates detached articulation. If you keep your pedal touch light, the detached articulation will not seem choppy or artificial or abrupt. Move each foot from one note to the next with the small arc motion that you learned from the exercises above [see February and March issues]. Note that these right-foot notes would be staggered against the beat in the piece itself.)

Each foot’s part should be practiced separately—slowly, lightly, not looking at the pedal keyboard, bearing in mind all of the things that you have learned about foot position—until it feels comfortable. Then the two feet should be combined, that is, you should play the passage as written—all of the notes, still slowly and lightly. Work on a little bit at a time—a measure or two at first, then three or four measures. 

Later on in this piece there is a passage that requires a different sort of pedaling (see Example 4). With these notes it is not possible to use a consistent pattern of alternate toes. There is a common-sense pedaling that is probably appropriate musically and is certainly right when using the exercise for practice: right foot on the high notes, left foot on the low notes (see Example 5). 

With this pedaling the separate feet will play as shown in Examples 6 and 7. When the feet have been practiced separately for long enough that the passage feels comfortable, they can be put together. Notice that in this case, the intervals required of the right foot are quite normal: seconds, thirds, repeated notes. The left foot is challenged to play a very unusual and wide interval, a major seventh.

Later still in this piece is a passage that does not have an obvious common-sense pedaling (see Example 8). Assuming that for now we want to use this passage as an exercise in all-toe pedaling, a solution like that shown in Example 9 would work. In this pedaling, all the sharps and flats are played by the left foot. This will enable the left foot to remain forward and the right foot back when you put the two feet together and they have to cross one another. However, the feet should first be practiced separately, until each foot’s part is thoroughly learned.

The opening pedal solo from the Pachelbel D-minor Praeludium is a passage in which the pedaling is not completely regular, but is fairly straightforward. The passage with a pedaling sketched in is shown in Example 10. (The unmarked middle section can be played with alternating toes.) In beginning to practice the separate feet for this passage, notice that each foot goes fairly far in the “opposite” direction. Take this into account when planning for the tilt of the feet and other aspects of positioning and posture. 

The Bach Toccata and Fugue in F Major, BWV 540, has two very long pedal solos near the beginning. Both suggest extremely regular pedaling—alternating toes, starting with the right foot. (The last notes of the first solo probably constitute an exception to this.) The separate foot parts are easy to extract and to practice. Since the solos are long, it is best to use only a few measures at a time as exercises. One passage in the second solo requires the left foot to go extremely high indeed, and therefore requires a lot of attention to foot position. This passage looks like Example 11; the left foot part (assuming alternate toes) looks like Example 12. In practicing this left-foot part you must be extra attentive to foot and leg position. Many players will turn in such a way that the comfortable part of the left toe for playing these very high notes is the very outside edge, with the foot almost perpendicular to the floor. 


Ground rules

Let us recap the things to bear in mind when using pedal parts extracted from pieces as material for the early stages of learning to play pedals:

1) For working on toe-only pedaling, music written before about 1750 is an abundant source of material. 

2) For use as exercises, pedal passages should be broken up into fairly short segments: typically, increments involving about 25 or 30 notes per foot are suitable.

3) The first step is to decide on a pedaling. For the purpose under discussion here, any pedaling that feels comfortable is fine. (Of course it could well happen that later on, revisiting the same passage for the purpose of learning and performing the piece, you will want to approach the pedaling differently.)

4) Once you have worked out a pedaling, you will know what each foot’s separate part is. Practice each foot separately, noticing what intervals each foot travels through as it goes from one note to the next. 

5) This practicing should be kept extremely slow. If one foot’s part is not—in the context of the piece itself—rhythmically regular, then it is OK to practice it without a steady beat. Just practice the shape of the notes.

6) When each foot’s part is well-learned and comfortable, then it is time to put the two feet back together. At this stage you should observe correct rhythm, and keep the tempo slow enough that the notes come accurately and easily. You may have to change something about foot position in spots where the two feet come close together. If so, it is a good idea to practice the separate feet again briefly in those spots, taking account of the new choices about foot position, before putting them together again.

Mastering the exercises with which this chapter began, and then practicing—and also mastering—several pedal passages in this way will give you a strong and reliable sense of the geography and kinesthetics of the pedal keyboard: how to find notes. 


Playing with heels

The first step in becoming adept at playing pedal notes with the heels is to practice a type of simple exercise that allows the heels to play without asking them yet to find any notes from scratch or to do anything too complex. This involves finding a raised key—sharp or flat—with the toe, and playing adjacent notes with the heel. See Examples 13 and 14. These can be adapted easily to other similar groups of notes. In playing short patterns like this, observe the following:

1) When you play the first note (the raised key), if you relax your leg and foot, where does your heel naturally fall? What part of the heel? Is it over the next note that you want to play? If not, can you bring the heel to the desired key by turning the ankle, or is it necessary to change the position of the leg a little bit? 

2) What choice have you made about which part of the toe to use to play the first note? Could you change this? What difference would that make in going on to play the second note? 

3) Does the gesture of moving from the third note to the fourth feel different from the gesture of moving from the first note to the second (apart from its simply being in the opposite direction)?

4) Try playing the notes of the exercise lightly detached, as you have been doing with the toe-only exercises, but then also try making the notes fully legato. Even experiment with audible overlapping from one note to the next—though this may sound odd. Does this feel comfortable? Does it suggest anything different about foot or leg position? 

(To be continued)



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