The sustain pedal is one of the most overlooked factors when it comes to ergonomic, pain-free piano playing.
The function of the sustain pedal is to keep notes ringing without the need of holding down the key. This allows us to move our fingers to a different position while sustaining the notes, and blending notes for phrasing or other purposes.
In this article I will focus on the sustain pedal as a tool to preserve energy and avoid any unnecessary tension.
One of the things I observe frequently when students practice the piano is that most of them don’t utilize the sustain pedal enough or for the right reasons. (By the way, this may be simply because they practice on a keyboard at home that doesn’t have a sustain pedal, something that has to be discouraged.) Consequently, they hold down the keys as long as they want to hear the notes ring which causes them to barely find time to reach for the next chord. They also often spread their fingers unnecessarily wide. Both results in unnecessary tension and technical limitation.
There are many problems that come with this kind of playing. Musical considerations set aside, the most serious one is the risk of injury.
I strongly urge piano teachers and students to give priority to mastering the use of the sustain pedal. It will improve the students technique greatly and can help prevent long term injury.