I'd like to learn Prokofiev's "Montagues and Capulets", but the bass needs some pretty advanced pedaling, and I have not experience with that. I know what the pedals do, but I'm no good at coordinating my foot to my fingers. I get that I need practice, but I think there's more than that. Should I try to learn a simpler piece first? Just how advanced are pedals?
First, to answer your questions directly:
- Yes, you should try a simpler piece (or several) first -- something so easy that your full attention can be on your pedaling -- and
- Advanced, but learnable.
The general rule is, let your ear be your guide. But, with that said...
THE DAMPER (SUSTAIN) PEDAL
The primary issue is pedal depth. This is key to quick, smooth, and quiet pedaling. You need to depress the pedal only enough that the dampers clear the strings, and you need only release the pedal enough to (mostly) damp the strings. On a piano in good condition, neither point will be at the top of bottom of the pedal's full range of motion. The actual distance between "far enough down" and "far enough up" will vary from instrument to instrument.
To find the appropriate "pedal on" depth, play a staccato note repeatedly while slowly depressing the pedal. When you hear the note fully sustained, you know how far to push the pedal down.
To find the "pedal off" depth, put the pedal at the "pedal on" depth, play a loud staccato note, and slowly let the pedal up until the sound is mostly damped. ("Mostly", because in practice it isn't necessary the the sound fully vanish, except before a silence.)
After pedal depth, the next issue is pedal timing. In order to maintain a legato connection from one note/chord to the next, even when your fingers cannot (or are indicated not to), it is important that you release the pedal immediately after you play the destination note/chord. Releasing the pedal before the note/chord, or releasing the pedal at the same time your hand begins to press the keys, results in an audible silence between sounds. Instead, a very quick "up-down" immediately after playing the destination note/chord will give a smooth transition. When you're comfortable with this there will be no significant bleed from the previous note(s).
Although the damper pedal is frequently used to connect notes the fingers cannot, it's more substantial purpose is to create a "warmer" or "bigger" sound. Make sure that your fingers maintain a true legato when called for -- don't rely on the pedal for this. An experienced listener will hear the difference. Similarly, when pedal is called for with staccato articulation, an experienced listener will hear your staccato even in the presence of the pedal.
Also, my personal pet peeve: when releasing the pedal before a silence (e.g., at the end of a piece), always keep your fingers on the keys and release your fingers and the pedal simultaneously. Otherwise, you risk an audible sound of the pedal being released.
THE SOSTENUTO PEDAL
This one is just a matter of timing. Not so much nuance as with the damper and una corda pedals.
THE UNA CORDA (SOFT) PEDAL
Be prepared if you're going to use it, as it takes more strength and time to depress it smoothly. Be careful when releasing it as well. Otherwise you get noisy pedaling.
In general, you want your soft playing to happen at the keyboard rather than the pedal. The pedal changes the timbre of your sound, so unless you want that timbre, or need an extreme level of quiet, best to use sparingly.
NOTES ON MONTAGUES AND CAPULETS My edition of the score includes pedal indications, which I take to be the editor's (Murray Baylor) and not Prokofiev's. Nevertheless, they are a good guide. As a pedal beginner, an edited edition might serve you well.
Use of the damper pedal will often correspond to changes in harmony, and therefore often with the left hand. Just know that the pedal is equally important in relation to the right hand. You might change the pedal more often than indicated in order to keep the melody "clean", or you might adjust the timing in order to maintain continuity in the right hand.