How To Use The Damper Pedal On A Piano

For late beginner level through early intermediate piano students, a lot of focus is put on learning how to utilize the damper pedal and master the technique of connected pedaling.  This post details an approach to introducing the pedal to students of this level in a way that can encourage natural development of pedaling technique.

how to use the damper pedal
The Piano Pedals

Though I am a piano teacher now, I remember the course of my development in learning how to use the damper pedal correctly (the damper pedal is the right pedal on a piano that creates a sustained sound).  It didn’t start with the first lesson on pedaling, but rather a natural fascination that students have with the pedal itself and the sound it creates.  From the first time I remember playing on a piano before I started taking lessons, I would make the sounds I created resonate with the pedal, thus creating a huge, sustained sound.  In teaching, I have discovered a similar reaction in my students when they first use the damper pedal in a song.  Their interest is piqued by the change in sound quality, and many times, they search for other songs in which it can be applied.
From what I learned from my students and their reaction on how to use the damper pedal, I have utilized a new approach to introducing it, which includes letting it become a component of the instrument that can be improvised and trained from the beginning of study.

Experimenting with the Damper Pedal

The most important factor in learning to pedal correctly is first feeling comfortable with the way the pedal reacts and sounds.  My approach is to encourage students to use the pedal as often as they like and to apply it wherever they feel is appropriate in their practice.  Ultimately, in songs where it is not needed, it is not used in performance, but experimenting with it creates a nice variation in practice to make a song more interesting.
Faber and Faber’s Piano Adventures series is great in making this a part of even early lessons.  Many songs from the Primer level and up have the prompt to hold the damper pedal throughout the entire piece.  This creates a sense of resonance, thus enhancing and connecting even single note melodies.

Getting Used to the Chord Changes

Most often, pedaling changes–or “clearing” the sustained sound by releasing the pedal—occurs with changes in the chord being played.  In having a student use the pedal freely from a beginning level, they become accustomed to needing to clear it occasionally, as the sound will build up.  For me in my early study of piano, I realized as I used the pedal more and more that holding it too long would not be beneficial to the overall sound, and I started changing it more and more.

Refining Pedal Change Timing

Of course, there needs to be some direction in the timing of pedal changes to make sure the sustain, or resonance, is connected.  This is done through counting techniques most often, but I like to focus in on one idea:  there is only one motion between the hands and your right foot–they move toward each other when a change is made.  To connect pedaling, you must release the pedal at the same time the next chord is depressed, so working on the coordination of having the hands fall toward the center of the piano and the foot to release towards it at the same time has proved effective in remedying this issue.
Related: The best piano keyboard.

Moving Past Pedaling Errors

In non-performance situations, I try not to be too picky about minor pedaling errors.  In fact, when a student is working on the continuity of a piece and they stop for a pedaling error, I tell them not to consider it with the same strictness as note errors.  The reason is that the student is already concerned with adding another element to playing the piano, and the best way to let pedaling become a natural extension of harmonic understanding is to help them develop the technique organically.  This means allowing some mistakes, yet continuing to work on the “big picture” of pedaling.

Conclusion – How To Use The Damper Pedal

Even though pedaling can be a difficult technique to teach, the most success I have seen as a piano teacher in addressing the topic is to start very early and to deemphasize the distracting elements that could be present for a student.  Working on coordination is very important, but also simply using the pedal a lot is a great way to make sure it becomes a natural part of a student’s experience with the piano.

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