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.
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.