On Teaching

November 24, 2020

Towards a pedal method

I recently decided that over the next few months, I will work on writing a stand-alone pedal-playing method, and much of it will draw on what I have written in The Diapason. My columns from November 2007 through February 2008 constituted a discussion of teaching pedal playing intended to be read by teachers. The June 2009 column presented thoughts about use of heels. The columns from January through May 2013 revisited pedal playing, this time in a way that was directed at students. These latter columns come close to adding up to the pedal method that I am now contemplating. This version, however, will differ from the sum of those columns in several ways: it will be longer and will include more exercises and excerpts from pieces.

In this month’s column I again discuss pedal playing and pedal teaching. I will not canvass all of my specific thoughts about teaching in any detail, as I have done that previously. I will go through a summary of some of those thoughts, with particular references to ways I have somewhat reshaped my approach over the last several years. That reshaping is probably more “meta” than “nitty-gritty.”

My set of techniques for helping students to become comfortable negotiating the pedal keyboard has not changed much. When I was developing these techniques years ago I felt after a certain period of thought and discovery that it worked well; I still feel that. But there are details that I have rethought, and there are aspects of somewhat more advanced pedal playing to which I want to give more attention and more space in the forthcoming method than I did in those columns. I also think that I know more now than I did when I first began to formulate my approach (thirty years ago or so) or when I wrote my columns on the subject (seven to thirteen years ago) about how to present some of the ideas in ways that will engage and help the greatest number and variety of students.

My earliest memories of my own attempts to learn to play with my feet as well as my early attempts to teach pedal technique revolve around the notion that pedal playing is difficult. It is difficult. But I also suspected early on, and still believe, that it often presents itself to people as even more difficult than it is, perhaps in the wrong ways. It seems awkward or unnatural rather than just something that properly requires a lot of practice and dedication. I have mentioned here more than once before that I was a late bloomer as a playing and performing musician. Thinking back now, I realize that for many years my pedal playing lagged behind the rest of what I was trying to do as an organist and harpsichordist. At least all through high school, I found pedal playing awkward and uncomfortable. And beginning at least that early, long before I was any sort of teacher, I encountered people who told me that they had given up trying to play organ because they found pedal playing too awkward: they could not believe they would ever get to a place where they could be comfortable with it. In my zeal for playing the organ I reacted to this as a tragedy. For some of the people involved it probably was a tragedy, in that they were led into passing up something that could have become a valuable part of their lives. This stayed with me and was part of my impetus for becoming an organ teacher.

Over the last few years I have noticed that my pedal playing has been the most robust part of my playing. In juggling harpsichord and organ performance I sometimes go for as much as several months without practicing organ very much or playing pedals at all. The first time that I then sit down at an organ after an extended time away there is never any rust in my pedal technique, in fact it feels well-rested rather than creaky. This certainly does not prove that my technical approach to playing is better than any other approach, but it does suggest that it is not worse. 

This reminds me of the situation that prevailed for so many centuries, when getting to the organ to practice was a difficult enough proposition that most organists did most of their practicing on manuals-only instruments at home. They then needed to have a pedal technique that could be called upon as needed on short notice. Some organists had access to pedal clavichords, pedal harpsichords, and pedal pianos, but that was very far from universal. Here is a speculative thought: is there a correlation between the development of winding systems that allowed organists to practice without having to enlist an assistant and a boost in the type and level of virtuosity that could be expected of pedal playing?

My approach to teaching pedal playing arose more or less in sync with my efforts to improve my own pedal facility during and shortly before and after my graduate school years. The foundation of the approach is that everything about playing should be physically comfortable. This highlights the crucial difference between two ways of approaching something difficult. Pedal playing is, along with most music making, difficult in that it requires a lot of well-targeted work. No one should expect to become adept at playing pedals without putting in many practice hours; one should expect to find the process sometimes arduous or daunting. However, there is no reason to expect it to feel unnatural or awkward or to accept it if it does. 

None of the people I have met who have told me they gave up organ playing because they could not get comfortable with pedals ever say that they simply did not want to put in any work. They say that they cannot get their bodies to do the things that are required to grapple with the pedals or some of the things they had been told were required. Some of this may have to do with being asked to keep one’s knees and heels together much of the time. I sympathize with this concern, since I cannot sit on an organ bench with my knees together for even a few seconds without experiencing back pain and overall physical tension. However, I sympathize with what I take to be the impetus for directing students to sit in a particular position. It is part of a system for learning to find notes reliably and to be able to play with confidence. The question is whether this is the best system or is necessary for all or any students. An approach that starts with a specific physical requirement like this tends to act as a gatekeeper, weeding out people for whom it does not work. I believe that is the strongest reason for only embracing it if it is absolutely necessary. It is not the worst tragedy that we encounter when someone who might have entered the world of organ playing is turned aside from doing so, but it is a tragedy.

What about the practical side of learning to negotiate a pedal keyboard? There are three ways to find the next note in a pedal passage: 1) by discerning where that note is in relation to the note that you most recently played in the same foot regardless of whether there have been intervening notes in the other foot; 2) by discerning where the note is in relation to the note you most recently played in the other foot; and 3) by discerning where the note is in relation to where you are sitting on the bench. The impetus for asking students to keep themselves in a specific set posture while playing is an emphasis on the second of these. It seems to me that, although sometimes useful, the awareness of where each foot in itself has been and is going is the most efficient and reliable of these techniques. I developed a set of exercises and practice techniques for training this.

I will not go through all details here, but I do mention some questions that I have and some ways in which I want to rethink things a little bit, or to supplement the ways in which I have thought about this in the past. Have I placed too little emphasis on #2 while believing that some others have placed too much emphasis on it? In my own playing I rely on #1, but am I right to do so? I think so: it seems to work for me. But does my personal emphasis on that technique bias me towards emphasizing it too much in teaching? What about #3? This is sort of an analogue to “perfect pitch”—just hit the note from scratch. I have always been a bit distrustful of this, and I have tended to de-emphasize it. I wonder if I should think a bit more than I have in the past about ways of training this sense, at least so that it can be an always-available backup. (Playing a note with the heel when you have just played a different note with the toe or vice versa is a special and important case of #2.)

How much does all of this vary from student to student? How much does it vary from one sort of repertoire to another or from one instrument to another? 

Notice that I am not even mentioning: 4) looking at the feet and 5) feeling around for easy-to-find keys and then using them as guideposts for the notes that one wants to play. I am generally skeptical about looking. It can sometimes work in the moment, but it is dangerous to use it as a technique for making finding notes seem easy during anything remotely like the beginning learning stage. Every time a student finds a note by looking, they pass up a chance to become a more skillful and secure pedal player. Looking can become a habit. And when it is a strong habit it can get disconnected from the business of finding the next note. It is not uncommon to see someone look down at their feet quickly and still play the wrong note. Looking at the feet also creates a perpetual risk of getting lost in the score. It is not impossible that a given player can incorporate some looking as a successful part of pedal playing. I need to consider how to characterize this situation. 

Concerning #5, I feel strongly that this is a bad idea, except perhaps as an occasional emergency measure. Any use of this technique during the beginning learning stage can actually make it close to impossible to get away from needing it. And since it requires extra gestures and time it can force slower tempos than would otherwise be necessary. It can also tamper with a player’s sense of rhythm and timing. However, I once had a student who came to me after decades of playing who found every note this way, who therefore made exactly twice as many gestures with her feet as she would have had to, but who was so adept at it that it did not create any trouble at all. That is, it did not create hesitation, insecurity, or inaccuracy. It did place an upper limit on her tempos. I need to continue to consider how to address this when writing for students.  

Concerning proper organ shoes, they should be comfortable; they should be light enough that keeping them up in the air is not a burden; and they should not be inclined to slip off or around in such a way that the player has to clutch at them with the toes to keep them on. When I was first trying to learn to play pedals I tended to use old-fashioned men’s dress shoes. These were uncomfortable and much too heavy. Each of my organ teachers gave me an indescribably vast amount of help, input, and encouragement, as I have written about over the years. But none of them ever said anything about shoes. Eventually I noticed that my ankles and leg muscles were perpetually tired and sore. I tried a number of lighter, more supple shoes. I have wide feet, and, in those days, it was difficult to find anything just right. But the heaviness was worse than any other sort of compromise would have been. 

For many years now I have played organ in New Balance walking shoes. For me, they are amazingly comfortable, light, wide enough, etc. Thinking of those shoes puts me in mind of another big issue. What about built-up heels? They can assist in heel playing, but they can impede certain sorts of foot crossing. I think that the extent to which built-up heels are necessary is influenced by certain things about foot position and foot flexibility that vary from person to person and also vary depending on technical choices. In preparing to write this method, should I revisit various different sorts of shoes, maybe purpose-designed organ shoes? These are now available to fit my wide feet, which was certainly not the case in the early 1970s! If I do this, I will be coming at those shoes through a filter of unfamiliarity that would not be there for a student who started out with them.

Marcel Dupré wrote in his memoirs that he answered the question, “Avec quels souliers jouez-vous de la pédale?” (“With what shoes do you play pedals?”), with “with my own.” Various eyewitnesses have testified that he indeed played in his everyday shoes, not normally changing shoes between walking in and playing. What about this latter practice? I certainly know people who consider it to be unacceptable to track outside dust and dirt onto a pedal keyboard. But here is a venerable precedent for doing so! Is it enough to sort of dust off the shoes? Is this something that I should write about in the method?

As much as I always enjoy getting feedback from readers, in this case such feedback could be especially useful and interesting. What do you think should be included in a pedal method? Did you happen to read my earlier pedal columns? Did you find them helpful? Do you have anything from your own experience either learning or teaching pedal playing that you think might inform such a book? I would love to hear from you.

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