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I found out in a different post that the half notes below need to play in parallel with some of the notes that follow (here, until the end of the measure). That seems to be the significance of the note + rest stacked up like that.

However, it seems impossible to play this on the piano: for instance, for the treble, it seems I have to both hold the E key and play it again four more times while holding it. For the bass measure, it's even worse: my hand is stuck holding the octave and cannot possibly play any other notes (outside the octave) until I lift my hand.

If I were to use the sustain pedal, that would allow me to free up my hands while holding the note for the rest of the measure, but then the following notes would just become a messy jumble because the pedal doesn't choose which notes it holds, and will hold all of them. Those chords would not sound crisp.

Can you help me understand the mechanics of playing this measure?

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    Looks like Rachmaninoff's Prelude in G Minor, Op. 23, No. 5. I find that piece abnormally troublesome to play, partially because my hands only span an octave each without hitting adjacent notes.
    – Dekkadeci
    Nov 14 '20 at 15:16
  • Good eye! That's exactly it! Nov 14 '20 at 19:01
  • Aaron's explanation (and very well explained indeed) is often called "half-pedaling." Rubinstein used to say that he used 12 different depths of pedal.
    – BobRodes
    Nov 26 '20 at 18:04
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The way this measure of the piece is performed as follows:

  1. Play the E octaves, accented, with the sustain pedal depressed the least amount possible to hold the sound.
  2. Release the E octaves to play the remaining chords.

When done properly, the E octaves will have been accented just enough, and with just enough pedal, to be heard through the remaining chords. But the remaining chords don't get muddy because the pedal is light enough. If necessary, you can flutter the pedal, which will damp the chords without fully eliminating the Es.

This technique is used throughout the piece as needed.

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  • Very well explained, Aaron. :)
    – BobRodes
    Nov 26 '20 at 18:05
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It's always seemed odd to me that a particular note is written to be held, then it gets played again. Often it's a piece re-written for piano, from something that was originally for more than one instrument to play. That's easy then - one instrument holds a note, while another repeats it.

On piano, it's not going to sound like that anyway. One way round it is to use the sostenuto pedal: common on the left of the Atlantic, rare on the right. The sostenuto pedal works a little like the sustain pedal, but will only allow notes played at the time of pressing to continue sounding. So it will be useful at the minim, but will, unlike the sustain pedal, only let those long notes ring.

Another option, although not as successful, is to half-pedal the sustain, which keeps the long notes going slightly, but not make the subsequent shorter ones sound too long.

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  • This piece is by a Russian, so unlikely he had a sostenuto pedal? What was he thinking? :P Nov 14 '20 at 19:08
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    @MihaiDanila A friend of mine once studied with a Russian teacher and quoted her as saying, "There is the wrong way, and there is the Russian way!". :-)
    – Aaron
    Nov 14 '20 at 19:14
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    I think most classical pianists would argue that half-pedaling is an essential part of technique. There are also other considerations about half pedaling, in particular that lower notes naturally sustain longer than higher ones, so it is easier to use half-pedaling to bring out lower notes without muddying higher ones than the reverse.
    – BobRodes
    Nov 26 '20 at 18:10
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    @Clockwork - on studio and grand pianos (and some keyboards, although they often work in a different way) the sustain (damper) pedal isn't like a switch - either on or off - but a continuous variable effect. By pressing the pedal fully, all the damers are off the strings. But by 'half-pressing', they can be made to touch the strings gently, or a bit more - so semi damping the vibrating strings. Takes a bit of getting used to - bit like where the clutch bites in a different car - but well worth practising how much to depress the sustain pedal.
    – Tim
    Jun 4 at 7:58
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    @Clockwork - that's about the size of it, yes!
    – Tim
    Jun 4 at 8:19

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