One of the first questions I ask when visiting a new customer is “Aside from tuning, are there any specific problems with the piano that you’d like me to address?”
With older pianos there is often a litany of complaints about obvious mechanical malfunctions – from broken strings to keys that don’t work – and every technician encounters these problems almost daily.
One complaint, however, that I hear quite often (even from piano teachers) is:
“The middle pedal doesn’t work”.
I check the pedals’ operational status and find that it’s performing precisely how it should. So, I ask the owner what they were expecting it to do.
I’ve compiled the following list from common responses and challenge you to select the correct answer. . .
- Mute or muffle all of the strings
- Lift only the Bass dampers
- Separate the left pedal from the right pedal
- Sustain only the notes that are pressed down
- All of the above
I think the confusion comes from the fact that the middle pedal does different things on different instruments. Its functionality is dependent on the manufacturers’ design criteria and the type of piano it is installed in. Below are descriptions of each:
- Nothing: In pianos with an installed player system the pedal is often disabled to allow room for the player mechanism.
- Mute or muffle the strings: Many (but not all) upright pianos have a “Practice Mute” which consists of a felt curtain that the pedal lowers between the hammers and strings to reduce the volume of the instrument.
- Lift only the Bass dampers: This is what I call the “Poor Mans’ Sostenuto”.
- Separate the left pedal from the right pedal: This was the explanation given by the late musical comedian Victor Borge.
- Sustain only the notes that are pressed down: This is known as Sostenuto or selective sustain, and is the way the pedal is designed to function in most high-end grand pianos (and a few uprights).
- All of the above: Yes and No. As described above, it depends on the instrument.
If you don’t play piano you won’t have any idea what I’m talking about. If you do play piano and you still don’t know what I’m talking about you need to look into this subject. Understanding the mechanics of the instrument that you work with are of paramount importance to you when you are performing.
Sostenuto (selective sustain) can be used to produce stunning and spectacular effects on the piano and should be explored by any serious pianist.