Pianos and Discrimination: Opening up the hornet’s nest and calling for more action

Though we have all heard rumours about the smaller sized keyboard designed by Steinway especially for use by the legendary virtuoso Joseph Hoffman (1876-1924) today we live in a generically sized piano world. All major manufacturers produce instruments designed for comfortable use by performers blessed with hands that are larger than a certain dimension. Though it is obvious that small hands are decidedly a disadvantage for pianists, it is all too easy to overlook the alarming fact that straining at the keyboard for stretches on an instrument with keys that feel too big is not only uncomfortable, even painful, but could all too easily lead to injury.

The 21st century keyboard’s ‘one size fits all’ approach seems strange when we consider how other instruments are readily available in different ranges (violins, cellos, and wind instruments too). Why is this the case? According to Erica Booker and Rhonda Boyle, whom I first met at the Australian Piano Teachers’ conference in Wagga Wagga back in 2011, the reasons are economic. They have cited the dominance of white male virtuosos from the 19th century and the need for big pianos to fill big concert halls. Big sounds mean big pianos with big keys.

Though the piano community has always said that the repertoire is vast enough for those with smaller hands to be able to find material that is comfortable for them to play, it does seem unfair that this means that lots of music is challenging, even impossible, for some players to perform convincingly. But all is not lost. The standard 6.5-inch octave keyboard need no longer be such an obstacle as there are indeed manufacturers out there catering for specific needs!

It is fascinating to check out the Donison-Steinbuhler standard foundation website which includes instruments with 6.0-inch (universal) 5.5-inch (7/8) and 5.1-inch (child’s) keyboards. When I tried a 5.5-inch upright model in Australia I found my fingers got stuck between notes in Chopin’s ‘Black Keys’ etude (!), but that after some practice the 6.0-inch keyboard began to feel more comfortable. To be fair, when I was measured by Erica and Rhonda, they found my hand span to be 0.7 inches above the male average (which is 8.9 inches) so I am not a good example. The whole subject of hand sizes is complex and should not be taken for granted- it does not follow that small women will automatically have very small hands! This is a fascinating subject which is examined in more detail at PASK piano website.

The great pianist Alicia De Larrocha is often mentioned as a player with small hands who could accomplish miracles, but in fact she was blessed with extraordinary flexibility: We have to be careful in our assumptions and definitions over exactly what we mean by ‘small hands’.

Getting back to smaller keyboards, just how long would it take to get used to playing with narrower keys? Rhonda mentions that adjustment to the 6.0 size normally takes only a few minutes, whereas for the 5.5-inch model no longer than an hour should be needed. ‘It’s like how we all learn to climb stairs at a young age and then automatically adjust to each set of stairs we encounter without looking…’ 

Keyboardists should not see the need for adjustment as an obstacle as familiarity with the adaptions necessary can only empower our physical co-ordination and awareness of keyboard geography in general.

Photos:
1. DS6.0 Hailun Upright
2. DS5.5 Hailun Upright
3. Hailun Upright at the NAMM 2020
4. 6.0 keyboard at the State Academy of Fine Arts in Stuttgart. (Contact there is Prof Ulrike Wohlwender)
5. Dallas International Competition 2014 was the the first competition in the world to provide DS keyboards on request. L to R – Prof Carol Leone, Grace Choi, Karolinka de Bree (both masterclass participants), contestant Artem Arutyunyan, the first contestant to play a DS keyboard in the comp, and conductor of the Dallas Chamber Symphony/comp director, Richard McKay.
6. Private collection of pianos with different key width owned by Erica Booker.
7-8. David Steinbuhler’s workshop, Titusville PA, 2014
9. DS5.5 Steinbuhler keyboard installed in Melbourne
10. Rhonda Boyle was one of the 100 nominated in Australian Financial Review ‘Women of Influence’ in 2019. With Erica Booker.

Rhonda and Erica are at the forefront of the PASK movement (Pianists for Alternative Sized Keyboards) and are extremely convincing in their extensive research. Rhonda has written: ‘An analysis of hand span statistics and how hand span relates to piano playing, showed that a large majority (about 86%) of adult women and a sizable minority (about 25%) of men have hand spans that are ‘too small’ for the conventional piano keyboard. In other words, too small to be able to perform all the repertoire they would like to, without pain, and to the best of their musical ability.’

So, the current market position, with most retailers offering only a ‘one size fits all’ range of instruments, appears to be sexist and discriminatory. Time and time again the overwhelming majority of prize-winners at international competitions are males with large hands. We need to accept that too often the pedagogical approach to students with small hands has been to compromise, fudge and muddle along. We redistribute passages between the hands, change fingering, try ingeniously creative pedalling, leave out notes, arpeggiate… and even try what has been coined ‘molto fakato’, whereby we manipulate tempo by slowing down in order to accommodate awkward corners!

Don’t get me wrong- the creative energy and innovative discoveries that come about because of limited hand span are often inspirational and revelatory. Discoveries and eureka moments that can enable small span stretches to cope with big demands can empower progress, making both performers and those who guide them feel they have entered flow state/’the zone’. As a teacher I have often admitted to students that my own large hand span has on occasion made me a little less enquiring and searching in practice than I might have been if I had a smaller stretch.

But large hander laziness is beside the point.   Sweat and tears should not be the default starting point for creativity if you have small hands. Those who cannot play an octave with comfort and ease, or struggle to play a sixth using fingers 2 and 5 often have an unbelievable amount of extra preparation time when compared to others with larger stretches.  They endure much in order to try their best to prepare music they may love- but which is decidedly uncomfortable for their hands.

Can we honestly put our hands on our hearts and say we are happy seeing thousands of players struggling with constant feelings of compromise? Peer reviewed evidence confirms what many of us instinctively must realise: Physically the risks of practising for extended periods on inappropriately large keyboards can be considerable (pain and injury).

Mentally, the damage could be seen as just as serious, with feelings of low self-esteem, even inadequacy generated after spending hours fudging and blurring the edges of textures that simply do not work for particular hands-on standard instruments. It has to be said too that students have often been too afraid to speak out about pain, assuming it to be normal. It is awful to imagine these assumptions reinforced by unsympathetic, ignorant mentors who themselves may well have been brought up on the destructive, now thankfully discredited ‘no pain, no gain’ approach to pedagogy.

Sadly, I recall the attitude back in the 1980s of my own dear teacher Peter Katin, a virtuoso blessed with as large a pair of hands as my own. On more than a few occasions Peter categorically stated to me in passing that he would ‘just refuse to teach anyone if they couldn’t stretch an octave- it just doesn’t work’. Surely, we all want music to be accessible to everyone – not just in terms of listening, but also in regard to the physical experience?

I was delighted to introduce the (small handed) concert pianist Mami Shikimori last month to Rhonda and PASK. This resulted in a sea-changing trip for Mami to London in which she was able to experiment with a smaller sized keyboard for the first time in her career. The joy with which she wrote back to me literally spilled out of my inbox as she expressed how thrilled she was to be able to play the opening chords of Rachmaninoff’s second concerto for the first time without compromise. Here she is on film:

So where do we now stand? Fitting different sized keyboards into instruments is sadly still far from being a universal possibility. But there is certainly a momentum taking place. PASK has a wide following in the thousands and includes musicians, researchers and technicians from America, Australia, and Europe amongst its supporters. There are some small size digital keyboards under development in Europe and America.

There are wonderful festivals featuring smaller size keyboards, such as the International Stretto Festival held online last May which included 17 pianists from 6 countries performing exclusively on pianos with narrower keys. The next Stretto Festival will run from 18-26 June 2022. PASK is not going to go away- and neither is this issue. It seems ridiculous that in our day and age we allow pianists the risk of performing on instruments that are potentially dangerous to their physical and mental health. Institutions need to take a lead and offer alternative sized keyboards for their students.

I work in the UK’s largest specialist music school, and we have many talented junior pianists with very small spans. They need to be protected and nurtured and all of our staff does everything they can to ensure this. For this reason, I am thrilled that we will soon be given on loan from the DS Standard Foundation an alternative sized keyboard which will allow a significant number of our small-spanned students the chance to play four note chords in one hand and octaves for the first time with comfort and ease.
 
We are planning a concert with the smaller keyboard in 2022 and hope to use the experience as a positive message not only for the students themselves, but also for the wider music community. Looking forward to the not-so-distant future when it will be commonplace for pianists to travel carrying portable keyboards with them (available in at least three different sizes) which they can use by inserting into any grand piano that they may encounter in the concert halls and institutions around the planet. It would also be fantastic if the major manufacturers of concert grands could provide alternative DS6.0 and DS5.5 keyboards at venues, as these can be interchanged within minutes (and cost a lot less than buying a new instrument).
 
Could we move forward to era in which changing keyboards becomes as easy as changing piano stools?

10 thoughts on “Pianos and Discrimination: Opening up the hornet’s nest and calling for more action

  1. Simon Burgess says:

    A very interesting subject. I would love to have a smaller keyed instrument, a DS6 upright would be great, as teaching young people on a full size one does create problems when growth doesn’t keep up with ability.

  2. Miguel Angel de Blas Martin says:

    Dear Murray, Mami lives in Oxford and she took the trip from Oxford to London to try my piano, not from Miami. I am an amateur pianist myself who did a lot of research and was lucky enough to get hold of one of the few retrofitted pianos made by Clive Pinkham in the UK. It is a very rare instrument that is not easy to come across in this country, and only the privileged ones that can afford to pay freight and importation from the DS foundation in the US can have their pianos retrofitted by the DS foundation in Europe. Keyboards are not easily interchangeable as they vary by manufacturer and model, being the Yamahas C2 and C3 the most “consistent”, but still need adjustment. What this industry needs is for digital and hybrid piano manufacturers to take notice and start making pianos with narrower keys

  3. Linda Gould says:

    I enjoyed your article, Murray. It still surprises me when people think narrow keys are the easy way out. The joy I have experienced since getting my narrow keys 25 years ago is indescribable. Small handed people have no idea (nor could they) how it is to play a piano with large hands. Even after 25 years I am still experiencing new musical highs as a result. Just today I revived a 3-part Bach invention (No. 3 in D) and to my delight was able to hold onto notes and voice inner voices with control and grace. Something that was impossible on 6.5 keys. No fighting the keys, just melting into them and being one with the piano. Pure happiness!
    Thank you for writing this. I shared it on my website. https://www.playpianochordstoday.com/narrow

  4. Doug Cutler says:

    You comments and observations are entirely logical. Yet it seems more clear than ever these days that humans are moved far less by logic than we presumed. Emotional motivators and inherent perceptual bias can easily override a purely logical argument. It’s arguable we come by these limitations honestly. We have a psychology very well adapted for survival in a primeval forest millions of years ago. Is that the face of leopard I think I see lurking in the bushes? If I make a snap decision, follow my gut instincts and flee in a panic, I’m more likely to survive and pass on my genes – even if I’m wrong!

    I myself have worked in the alternative musical keyboard design space off and on for most of my life. I hold three US patents in keyboard design, all expired. Still, I’m working more intensely these days as I grow older, hoping to leave something of value behind for coming generations of musicians.

    But the obstacles are familiar to you, I’m sure. Musicians of accomplishment I consider some of the most intelligent people on the planet. Yet over and over again I’m met with a resistance bordering on horror at the mere suggestion that anything other than the piano keyboard of the late 19th century is anything less than perfection, as if it’s handed down from the divine and affront to the piano gods to even suggest that it might be improved upon in any manner including size options.

  5. Nancy Litten says:

    Bravo, Murray! So thrilling to read this, and it sounds as if you may have a chance to ‘move mountains ‘. It is incredibly rare to encounter a pianist with large hands who has the imagination and compassion to understand the problem.

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