Start Pedaling by Joe Mills

I’m becoming more comfortable at the piano. I can form chords. I can play some sharps and flats. I might even be able to fool someone that I know what I’m doing for at least ten seconds. Until they look at my feet.

I have been ignoring the pedals. I know they’re down there. I know they do something. But the songs, when I get them right, sound okay without them, and trying to play with both hands is difficult enough. Adding feet just seems too complicated.

This is typical of my approach to learning things. When I studied French, I didn’t pay attention to the accents. This wasn’t because of an American bias – I didn’t think. “We don’t have accents so I won’t learn them.” – It was sheer laziness. And because I’m comfortable with bluntness (which, in my case, is fundamentally tied to laziness). I had no desire to be fluent; I just wanted to be able to get the general idea and express it. “Biere, s’il vous plait.” Call it Close Enough Learning. Now that I’m teaching myself Spanish, using the app Duolingo, again I’m not bothering with accents. Instead, I ignore the comment each time it says, “Don’t forget the accents!” After all, it still lets me go on. It knows what I mean. Close enough, good enough.

Yes, I know this is wrong and ignorant and I should be ashamed and as a professor and poet interested in the nuances of words and blahblahblah, but  . . . so be it. Most of the time my tool box – metaphorically speaking — has three tools – hammer, screwdriver, pliers. You don’t want me for any fine or subtle work. If it can’t be twisted, pounded, or pulled off, you probably want someone else for the job. I’m good at demolition, not construction.

Ironically, one of the reasons we finally bought a piano was because the digital keyboard that my wife was using didn’t have pedals, and she had reached the point where she needed them. It was affecting her ability to improve. When she plays, using the pedals of course, it sounds impressive. It may be a song that I too practice, but with her, it will be “Whoa, that sounds good. What is that?”

So, recently I decided my attitude needed to change. I needed to stop simply ignoring all those pedal marks in the books and try to do something about them. Like maybe learn what they do. (This resolution, by the way, only applies to piano; I have no intention of paying attention to the accent marks in Spanish.)

To accomplish this, I could have asked my wife or someone who knows how to play. I could have Googled the information. I could have read the book more closely. Or, I could just stomp around and see what happens. I chose this last option. It’s not a process that you would want of a doctor or a surgeon, but since I’m only playing for myself, it doesn’t matter.

If I want to justify this approach, I could say how I once heard that John Lennon was a fingers-on-the-fretboard composer. He would mess around to work things out rather than approach composition from a theoretical perspective. This is nicely romantic… but it takes a long time and I’m no John Lennon.

I think I’ve figured out what the pedal on the right does – it makes notes last longer until they become a big higgledy-piggledy mess (that’s the technical term). I think of it as the “horror film” pedal. Someone’s cooooooming! Someone’s in the woooooooods! The one on the left seems to change the notes somehow. It’s a little weird, so I avoid it. The one in the middle? I have no idea. It doesn’t seem to do anything. I wonder if it’s just for show, or if there’s some effect that I don’t know about. Every time I push it, I think of an old Steve Wright joke: “In my house there’s this light switch that doesn’t do anything. Every so often I would flick it on and off just to check. Yesterday, I got a call from a woman in Madagascar. She said, ‘Cut it out.’”

I also remember driving through France years ago with an American friend. We kept laughing at road signs with an exclamation mark — ! – on them. “Surprise!” we would say each time we saw one. “Surprise!” We would laugh as we sped through the little towns. Finally when one of us said, “I wonder what that sign means,” from the back seat, the French woman who would become my wife quietly said, “It means Danger. Slow down.”

I probably should ask about the middle pedal. What if it’s an ejector pedal or something? But maybe some ignorance is, if not bliss, at least okay. For now just working with the pedal on the right may be good enough. After all, I only use a few of the buttons on the dishwasher, the microwave, the car stereo. I don’t have to know how everything works; do I? That would be overkill, n’ést-cé-pås?

Joe Mills
Joe Mills

A professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Joseph Mills holds an endowed chair, the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship in the Humanities. He has published six collections of poetry, including This Miraculous Turning and Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers (2nd edition), and most recently Exit, Pursued By a Bear. Although he has achieved awards and acclaim for his work, no one, not even the most sympathetic and pitying, would praise the way he blunders through “Amazing Grace” or rudimentary piano pieces. Nonetheless, in his middle age, he has decided to learn piano, and he suspects that it has begun to change his life in unanticipated ways.

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