Beginner, Meet the Pedal – Teaching Older Beginners to Pedal Confidently

Do you remember your first introduction to the pedal? I remember mine.

To be precise, I remember not being introduced to it. I switched teachers at about age 11 and my new teacher assumed that at the level I was at I had already been taught how to pedal. I hadn’t, and I was too embarrassed to correct her.

I gradually figured it out through trial and error, but I think it would’ve been better to have learnt to pedal much sooner. I didn’t pedal confidently until I was 16/17. That’s 5 odd years of bashing away at the pedal any which way until I got a handle on it.

The pedal and I are best friends these days. I want all my students to experience that friendship early on in their piano journeys.

best friends

First introduction to the piano pedal

Trialling a New Approach

With this in mind, I’ve been using a couple of new students as guinea pigs lately to change some things about the way I teach older beginners. I wanted to achieve two things with this experiment:

  1. Make pedalling less scary by introducing it right away.
  2. Make chords a core part of lessons and not an addition.

Once I had my objectives I needed test subjects. Luckily I had two new beginners who fit the bill. A new adult student, and a 10 year old beginner.

Let’s see if we can get these students to pedal confidently in the first 6 weeks of lessons.

Four Chords

I introduced both students (as I often do) to the four chord pattern in C major at their first lesson. I had them play the chord progression with just the tonic in the left hand and the chord in the right hand.

four chords in C plain

I love doing this because it sounds rich and full which is great for an older beginner’s ego. I often have new students add pedal to this right away and I did this for these two students too.

At this stage we don’t worry about legato pedalling, we just do it like this for now:

four chords in C simple pedal

My focus here is on pedalling basics.

  • Heel on the ground
  • Never taking their foot completely off the pedal
  • Getting everything working together while keeping a steady beat

If we want these new students to pedal confidently, we can’t throw them in at the deep end.

Up ’til now nothing is all that different from the way I normally do things. My two guinea pigs have learnt a C major chord progression and added pedal to make them sound great at their first lesson.

The difference was this time I didn’t stop there.

Big Small

I normally save the full explanation of chords until we get to our first lead sheets, but for these two students it was at the second lesson. I explained to them the big-small way to find any major or minor chord.

They then practiced finding all the major chords at home that week. Obviously they couldn’t find them instantly in their second week of lessons, but they did both get used to figuring out any chord they needed. Plus they got comfortable with tones & semitones (whole & half steps) in the process.

Key Signatures

The next step was to start finding those four chords in other key signatures. Over the next few weeks we started making our way around the circle of fifths playing the I-vi-IV-V progression in each key.

It was really fantastic to see a new beginner moving around the piano as much as they were at this stage. Anything that accelerates (especially for a nervous older beginner) comfort with the keys is time well spent in my book.

Legato Pedalling

As my two guinea pigs were growing accustomed to finding the chords in each key, I also started to refine their pedal technique.

four chords in C legato pedal

The way I phrase this to students has actually changed lately. I used to explain to students that the pedal needed to be cleared simultaneously to the new note being played. This always resulted in the pedal being changed too early. Every time.

Then someone on Facebook mentioned that they always tell new students to change the pedal after the note is played – and then gradually move the pedalling back to where it should be.

Phew, that’s easier.

So, I worked with both these students on changing the pedal just after they played the new tonic in their left hand. The difficulty older beginners have with this coordination is the main reason I started this mini-experiment.

A Fruitful Introduction

My little experiment was a success! Both these students are now able to pedal confidently.I don’t hear groans or see anxious faces like I have with other beginning students when the “p” word is mentioned.

They’re now in their eighth week with me and are more than happy to add pedal to any piece or exercise I ask them to.

Pretty soon the pedal will be their best friend too.

How do you first introduce pedalling?

Do you wait for until it comes up in the method book you’re using? Does it look different for different age students? Do you do something different with each and every student?

I’d love to hear any pedalling tips or tricks you have in the comments.

5 thoughts on “Beginner, Meet the Pedal – Teaching Older Beginners to Pedal Confidently”

  1. Thank you for these ideas. I love them! Especially the idea of finding the various triads in many different keys early in the course of study. I feel very deeply that piano pupils must become comfortable and familiar with the different topography under their fingers in different keys as early as possible. I’m excited to have this additional tool in my toolbox to help this happen for them! I’ve been introducing the study of scales pretty early-on for them, but with the way that you introduce chords (without them necessarily having to know key signatures, etc.), this will introduce this to them even earlier!

    Great job! And yes, pedaling should be also taught as early as possible, and this is a great way to do it. I use piano method books which introduce the pedal pretty early, a fact which delights me – but still not as early as you do! I will try this with my next beginner! The only possible impediment that I could see is that some younger beginners don’t yet have the dexterity in their fingers to be able to confidently play a 3-note triad with one hand. So, they might need to wait for a little more time before they can do this exercise. But I imagine that for these children, they could always play just a major 3rd (2 notes, only) instead of a triad, and still be able to benefit from this exercise and learn to use the pedal! Then, the triads could come later when the hand is ready for them.

    Thank you for sharing this golden tip with us!

    Reply
    • Hi Cherwyn, glad you found the idea useful. It would definitely be more difficult for the younger kids, as the dexterity is not there yet to do the triads. You might try just using open fifths or thirds as you say though for them if you want to teach the pedalling that way.

      If you do try it out, make sure to report back! I’d love to hear how you get on with it!

      Reply
  2. I love your ideas and tips. Teaching them to play that first beat then up/down. I’ll try that.
    I recently read the “naked piano” post and chuckled at the phrasing. 🙂
    That’s usually what I show during the pedal introduction – what is happening inside when they play and when the pedal is added.

    Reply

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