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I have been playing piano on an 88-key electric piano a fair bit recently. I have developed what I believe to be a very bad habit, in that I use the sustain pedal very often.

While I don't think this is always wrong it means I can be very sloppy and slow on my finger movements since I am preventing a dead time between different chords/notes (because the sustain pedal is becoming a crutch, see this comment).

What is the best way to break this habit? Should I just disconnect the sustain pedal (it'd be one way!)? I have a hugely negative reaction to this because I dislike how choppy everything sounds.

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Is this an actual electric piano (e.g. Fender Rhodes) or could you be misusing the term to refer to an electronic "piano" (a simplified synthesizer keyboard with built in speakers, repackaged as a piece of furniture)? –  Kaz Aug 22 '13 at 2:27
    
If everything sounds choppy on a synthesizer piano patch, that suggests that the patch has a poorly tuned release time. Release time is the decay of a note which takes place when you release the key. When release time is too fast, you will have a sensation that your technique is choppy. Phrases do not "flow". Needless to say, this type of parameter is not accessible in electronic pianos. –  Kaz Aug 22 '13 at 2:28
    
@Kaz there is a 99% chance the problem is me, not the keyboard itself... :) –  enderland Aug 22 '13 at 11:11
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Tape your foot to the floor :-) –  Carl Witthoft Aug 22 '13 at 11:44
    
Disconnect the pedal, or put a box over it so you can't engage it. –  filzilla Aug 22 '13 at 18:15

5 Answers 5

Find a reasonably well maintained real piano, and play it without using the pedal for a while.

If you find a real piano OK

If you find that the real piano doesn't have the choppiness you're experiencing on your electronic piano, then the problem is the piano sound on your keyboard.

Specifically, it's the release property of notes that is significant. That's what happens when you let go of the key. On a real piano, it takes time (not very much!) for the damper to reach the string, and the string continues to vibrate (although not for long) as the damper mutes it. Any simulated piano must simulate this effect.

There might be a better patch you could choose -- but I imagine you'd have already tried that. Unfortunately the other alternatives are to buy a MIDI sound module containing a better piano sound, use a computer as a sound module, or buy a whole new keyboard. All of these involve spending money.

If you find a real piano has the same problem

If you find the real piano choppy too, then it's likely that the problem is with your technique. You might be playing every note staccato, and masking it with the sustain pedal.

In this case, disconnect your sustain pedal (to avoid temptation) and concentrate on keeping your finger on each key for longer. Try playing the same part staccato, normally, and legato.

Piano exercise books contain exercises that target continuity. Try some of these, or ask a teacher for direction.

Once you've nailed this, re-attach the pedal - it's a perfectly valid tool in many situations.

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As slim suggests, try a real piano - it may be that the sustain on yours is not as good as that on a proper piano.The 'mechanism' is rather different from acoustic to electric/electronic piano.

Slow everything you play down to 1/2 to 1/4 speed, and listen to the 'choppiness'. If it's still there, you need to address your style of playing note to note.With full chords, we need to use the pedal to provide continuity between each chord, but single note tunes should be made to flow without resorting to pedalling. Slowing down will allow you to move smoothly from note to note - it's like speaking - you don't start the next word till you've finished the last, but conversely, you don't leave gaps in between the words (until you come to a full stop or comma).

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Whenever you use the pedal, you're balancing clarity of tone with the lushness of the piano's sound. In some music, such as Debussy's works, it's entirely appropriate to use lots of pedal, because you want that lush sound. In others, such as much of Bach's works, you would not want it, because the clarity of the counterpoint is often more important.

To further muddy the waters, the question of how much pedal you use is piano-dependent. My electric keyboard's pedal does not sustain notes as long as my acoustic piano's does (and I think this is actually billed as a feature!). As such, I use more pedal on my keyboard than I do on my piano. Even among acoustic pianos, some resonate more than others. Some baby grands may be so muddy in the bass registers that you simply cannot use any pedal at all when you're playing down there. That same part on a concert grand may be fine with pedal full tilt. A piano in a practice room will have a different resonance than the same piano in a concert hall. Hell, that piano in an empty concert hall has a different resonance than the same piano in a full concert hall! All of these situations require the pianist to approach the piece differently; a different touch on the keys, a different set of dynamics, and different use of the pedal. The question isn't "how much are you using the pedal", it's "how clearly are you playing?"

In my book, you're using the pedal as a crutch when in the process of getting a better legato, you compromise the clarity of your melody. In that case, just use less pedal. It helps to get a clear idea of what you want your melody to sound like. So play it without pedal, using whatever fingering gives you the sound you like best. Use both hands if you have to. But get the sound you want out of the piano without pedal. Then, add in the other parts. If/when you lose the sound you're looking for, use the pedal to help. Use it like a third hand; you don't use your hands to hold the notes forever, just long enough.

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There are 2 different ways of using the pedal on a keyboard instrument.

  • You're unable to do a proper legato between notes and you'll cover it with some pedal.
  • You use it because you think it sounds better.

The boundary between these two approach is slight but it exists. Let me give you some examples.

Most '800 romantic music is supposed to be played with a good dose of pedal (see Debussy, Schumann and probably many other which I've not played so I won't touch). If you try to play it without, some passages just sounds awful: they're impossible to be interpreted properly with 10 fingers and no pedal.

On the contrary, Bach music is not supposed to be played with a pedal at all (opinions are conflicting but it is widely accepted that the pedal usage should be really limited when playing cembalo music on the piano). Still, if you adopt this approach you'll have a very hard time trying to cover up some passages (but it is not impossible).

If you play Bach you'll notice that ALL of his music is supposed to be played by 10 fingers but not necessarily a pedal: the only way to correctly interpret this music is with a proper fingering.

Here, look at this snippet of Bach partita in E minor:

enter image description here

It would be very tempting to play that descent of 6th in the second beat with just one hand and cover the staccato with some pedal (or just not cover it at all). This would create a gap between each one of those descending 6th which would sound like a staccato.

How would you cover that? Pedal? That's what an amateur would do. Check the great pianists:

Do you hear any gap? Nope. Do you hear any pedal? I don't. So, how do they do that? Proper fingering. If you notice, the right hand has a very simple theme to play: why not use some free fingers from the right hand to "help" the left hand? The first time I was trying to do that my brain exploded but everything which is possible can be learned. For example it is impossible to play a progression of 6th with one hand without gaps or finger substitution.

There are thousands of these little "problems" in Bach music and all of them may be overcome only with proper fingering (and by leaving the pedal).

Now, let's move on to another repertory. Here, listen this classic: Debussy, Claire de Lune. Could you even try to imagine this piece without a pedal? If yes, you're either mad or deaf.

If you want even a more extreme example of something which cannot be played without a pedal, why not listen a piano transcription of one hugest and most magnificent orchestration of all times? Wagner for piano. You can't possibly play that without a pedal: I'm still wondering how you can play that with just 2 hands, let alone without a pedal...

Straight back to question, I hope you'll understand that is impossible to answer it without a reference to a particular passage/piece of music. However, since you're concerned about using the pedal too much a very general piece of advice which helped me is: when approaching a new piece of music, keep the foot away from the pedal. Totally.

Try to let it sound good without the pedal: if you need to blend the notes in a well-sounding legato just try a more wise fingering.

When you'll find a gap or an aesthetically unpleasant passage, you'll eventualy be ready to use the pedal to cover it up but please... Make sure you've studied without the pedal before.

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I would also like to add that playing with the pedal is not really that bad. I would argue that there are very few circumstances where you specifically have to avoid the sustain pedal, as long as you use it well. This is tough when soloing or playing runs because you have to be quick and accurate with your foot, but this could be a time that certain players would choose to not constantly use the pedal. I would argue that with good foot work the only time to strictly avoid the pedal is when you don't want the un-dampened strings to vibrate, which will tend to fill out the sound and make it brighter.

Fair Warning: I play a lot of piano but am not a performer on the instrument. Likewise, I've taken lots of lessons but not to an incredibly advanced level.

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