On Teaching: Pedals—one more time

April 27, 2021

Pedals: one more time

The aim this month is to wrap up a few loose ends about pedal playing, including some interesting points that I gleaned from readers’ feedback following last December’s pedal-oriented column. This will be the twelfth column that I have written over the years that is specifically focused on pedal playing.

Numerous people are concerned and sometimes perplexed about what sort of shoes to wear when playing pedals. In fact, that issue alone generated the majority of comments. One reader sent me the following summary of quotes about the matter, with his comments, that he had collected over the years:

1) “I play in cowboy boots.”

2) “I can feel the pedals better in socks.”

3) “I travel to Europe . . . . Organists there wear street shoes.”

4) “You can injure your foot if you don’t wear shoes.”

5) “I do not sit near the organist on hot days.” (I assumed that said organist is wearing only socks.)

6) “The method books only mention to wear shoes.”

7) [my favorite] “My first organ teacher was a nice old sweet lady. She wore shoes but let me play in socks.”

8) “I have very big feet . . . . Shoes are too big, I use socks.”

I added the numbers above for ease of reference to my comments below.

These comments are intended to be humorous, but each of these is also really apt. I can relate to several of these remarks, either from personal experience or as something that I have encountered with students or colleagues:

1) I have never played in cowboy boots, but I have once or twice played in snow boots. This came about for two very different reasons. Once I had walked to school in the snow in boots and unexpectedly needed to play. I kept my boots on—cleaning them thoroughly. The other time I had snow boots with me but had been walking in regular shoes through the snow. That time I used the boots because they were clean. Playing in boots was awkward: I would not recommend it, and I do not know why the organist quoted above liked to do it. But it moved me to think a lot about foot position and how to maintain relaxation while playing. I come back to that memory frequently while practicing or teaching.

2) I note that people have differing concepts as to whether feeling the pedals with tactile sensitivity while playing is a good thing. I find it interesting that I do not have a clear idea as to what I think about that. There are perhaps dangers to being too caught up feeling the keys by trying to caress the keys or hold on to them. If the latter leads to active use of the toes—curling them, for example—it is probably in most cases a place where problems could arise. On the other hand, any sense that the foot is inert or clunky, or that the shoes are a barrier to suppleness, is at least as great a danger.

3) The question of whether one may wear street shoes to play is a very big one. It encompasses all sorts of other matters, starting with concern about dirtying the pedals. It seems pretty self-evident that it is a good idea not to allow a pedal keyboard to become dirty or gritty, and especially not to scratch it. Can this be achieved by walking into the room already wearing the shoes in which you are going to play but making sure to clean them? That might depend on what is going on outside, particularly when it comes to various types of inclement weather. But it is also important to keep issues separate. If we think that it is not a good idea to track detritus of the outdoors onto the pedalboard, that tells us nothing at all about what sort of shoes to wear or not to wear while playing. For organ playing, one could bring a second pair of the very same shoes in which one walks. I did this for decades, although honesty requires me to admit that I also have sometimes let myself just keep my walking shoes on if it is dry out and I dust them off. (This seems to have been the approach of Marcel Dupré, as I mentioned in my December 2020 column. I am not sure that we know how much dusting off he did.) Since I wrote that I play the organ in New Balance walking shoes, I have stopped walking in those shoes, in favor of something more appropriate in its orthopedic approach, but I still use them at the organ.

4) This is true for some people, and for me at this point in my life. I have never been particularly interested in playing without shoes, but I could do it in a pinch. Sometimes around home I have wanted to play just a little bit but have felt lazy about finding shoes and socks. However, over the last few years I have noticed that if I do this even briefly, I get significant pain in my feet. (This also occurs if I drive without shoes, by the way.) This is a late-middle-age medical/orthopedic development, and it is not surprisingly one that I am not happy with. The point that I take away from this is that things change. This could in principle apply to anything and everything about the question of organ-appropriate shoes, and to everything about pedal playing as such. How does one write a pedal method and take into account changing needs? It is crucial to ponder that.

5) Presumably the “hot days” remark is about aroma, and that is one particular circumstance. What we do in playing the organ is often bound up with interrelationships and appearances that have nothing to do with the music or the instrument as such. Some of the specifics when it comes to organ playing have to do with religious services and the traditions and ethos of those situations. This can be a pervasive issue. I believe that it is critical to use shoes or not use shoes in whatever way really works for playing and is free of any tension or pain. Style and look must be secondary, even when they are important.

6) This is very important, though not because of its own specifics. Rather, it is important to remember that we have a strong tendency to believe what we read. It is utterly incumbent on anyone writing a method or any other authoritative work to ensure that what they write is sound. But equally important is making it clear that flexibility is almost always important, that nothing is engraved in stone. This is most of what I have been musing about in trying to settle on how to give my pedal method its final shape. This brief comment suggests not that the methods in question actively discourage playing in socks or bare feet, but that they simply did not mention it. No one should assume that a method book covers everything. But we have an impulse to assume that. How can a writer be clear, emphatic, and honest about what they think without inadvertently seeming to close out other options?

7) I am a proponent for allowing students to establish their own preferences. This is a good model for students to not necessarily do everything that your teacher does—or for the teacher not to assume that what is right for you is also right for everyone else.

8) This gets back to the cowboy boot thing. The question as it relates to shoes is not what size one’s feet are, but how much the shoes change the size. Agility and flexibility are the important things: any mismatch between the size of one’s feet and the pedalboard can almost certainly be dealt with by angling the feet more or less or in some different way. Not that it is necessarily a mistake for this player to play in socks, if it works. This reminds me that one of my core beliefs about pedal playing is that everything to do with exact foot position—especially but not limited to the extent and exact direction of any turning of the ankles—is a very individual matter. My quest is to give students guidance on how to work that out without trying to prescribe an answer in advance.

I tend to look at the issue of shoes or no shoes as being mainly about comfort and secondarily about style and presentation. But in a recent conversation my colleague Thomas Dressler reminded me that it also ties in with a player’s approach to using heels. Without shoes we are relying on only the shape of our feet to reach the keys. Even a pair of shoes that does not have a built-up heel gives the player a bit of an assist in reaching with the part of the foot that cannot extend far. This is a bigger issue, as Dressler pointed out, the farther toward the edges of the pedal keyboard one goes. If a student wants the assistance afforded by actual built-up heels, then that renders the notion of playing without shoes moot and also guides the choice of shoes.

I realize that my own actual and practical way of encountering this question of playing without shoes is a very specific one. If a student, either new to the instrument or with some experience, indicated that they really want to play in socks, my immediate impulse would be to discourage that. I need to sort out why that is my immediate impulse, what reasons there are for or against that impulse, and what is the best way to address this in writing, absent any possibility for back-and-forth discussion.

(I noticed by chance right now in a brief break from writing a video of someone changing stops with their feet while playing! This absolutely requires playing in neither shoes nor socks. I doubt that this technique will catch on.)

Another reader wrote that she likes to play in organ shoes because the sameness of feel is important. It is disconcerting to have the feel of a foot on pedals be different from one time to another. This makes sense to me. Over the years, when I have occasionally needed to plan on a different pair of shoes for a particular performance, I have made a point of getting used to them over as long a period of time as possible. This process has never quite worked to make me as comfortable as I would be in my regular organ shoes. This principle does not say anything about what exactly the shoes should be. It works just as well with any of the thoughtfully designed “official” organ shoes, my New Balance shoes, or anything else that is intrinsically correct. However, it is worth bearing this in mind as it relates to the passage of years. Will the shoes that you like and are accustomed to be replaceable when they wear out? The ones that I wear have not been made in a while. I purchased my last few pairs on eBay, and there are not any available there now. What will I do when these shoes wear out?

One reader wrote of an early organ teacher who tied their students’ knees together for playing. This is a vivid way of getting to the heart of what I want the core practical center of this pedal method to be about. In several columns I have written about my skepticism of dictating in advance a particular position for the knees or legs for pedal playing. It is not illogical or absurd to think that a stable position could be of assistance in something that presents as being as arcane and difficult as finding notes with the feet. I have plenty of respect for anyone’s efforts to find solutions. And if I want my very different solutions to be convincing, I must make it abundantly clear that they work and make it as transparent as possible how and why they work. That is the absolute core.

Other readers reminded me to make the method as systematic and logical as possible. This is my intention, and one about which I am happy to be reminded. One issue is the number of exercises I should include for each particular technical point or stage. Should I rely on students to create their own exercises with plenty of guidance? I believe that this is a good thing, but I want to be sure that the guidance is sufficient. I will likely end up using more exercises than I have included as part of any pedal-playing columns, though certainly not enough to be exhaustive, if there is such a thing.

Several readers suggested that I include a generous selection of actual pieces or substantial passages drawn from a variety of repertoire. That is also a good idea, possibly as a separate volume of my method. But what I would not expect to do is to provide pedaling for those pieces. Instead I would want to give a concise but thorough discussion for each piece of what some of the possibilities are for thinking about whatever pedaling issues the piece presents either typical of a type of piece or peculiar to that one piece in some way. This would also be a good place to remind a student to notate pedal markings exclusively in pencil!

Another reader suggested that this whole project could be or should be produced as a video rather than as a book. That seems like a great idea to me, though as a supplement, not a replacement. I am daunted by video technology, or at least relatively inexperienced with it. I will tuck that idea away in my mind somewhere and return to it at some point.

I have many notes on this project, in my head, in writing, in emails, indeed in effect as the whole or certain parts of some previous columns. I will now stir it all together and see what comes about.

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