Tyranny of the Pedal

I had my piano lesson yesterday.  I’m learning to play on a song called “Lunar Landscape,” a dark haunting melody in three-quarter time, filled with lots of minor chords.  I’ve been working on it for almost a month, making slow but steady progress.  Today my teacher, Tatyana, thought I’d come far enough to start using the pedal.  I tensed up immediately. I’d been dreading the moment.  I already struggle to keep time, hit the right keys and remember when to play legato.  My fingers never seem to be where they’re supposed to be. The last thing I need is the added pressure of working a pedal.  But Tatyana insisted.  

Sometimes I wonder why I keep taking lessons.  I don’t have much time to practice.  The moment I sit down at the keyboard, I instantly become uncoordinated.  I’ll never be good enough to play for my family or at parties, and I’m still plagued by the memory of an unfortunate piano recital when I was 13. Nevertheless, I find the endeavor deeply satisfying. I’ve said before that painful as it can sometimes be, I enjoy struggling against my limitations.  I like reaching for something that’s so beautiful and not quite being able to attain it.  It’s sort of like writing.  Which is why, when Tatyana started talking about the magic of the pedal, I decided to give it a try.  In her delicious Russian accent she explained that the pedal creates an illusion. Its magic is in its ability to connect and sustain sound long after the key is struck; that the layers of sound create emotion.  “Here let me show you,” she said, brushing my fingers away from the keys.  She nudged my foot off the pedal, positioned her own, and played.  You’d have thought we were standing in a seventeenth century village somewhere in Russian countryside.  I imagined the pale composer, bent over a piano in a drafty second-story flat, scribbling inky notes on parchment while outside, the wind howled and wagon wheels echoed on the cobblestones.  Then it was my turn.  My playing  wasn’t nearly as beautiful as Tatyana’s–not by a long shot–but there was a moment, as I pressed pedal, when everything came together and the sound rose up around me.  I felt myself move inside the music. Tatyana felt it too because when I finished she nodded and said, “O,” which I’ve learned is shorthand for, “That’s it. You’ve got it.”

So, I’ll be back on the piano bench tomorrow, practicing with the pedal, struggling to keep time while my hands and feet connect the sound; thinking about emotion, reaching for the the unattainable.


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