Small Hands, Big Heart

Schoenhut 25-Key My First Piano II, Red

These days, I have been practicing in earnest on a Steinbuhler DS5.5TM keyboard insert (sometimes referred to as a “7/8” size keyboard) made specifically for my Steinway B piano, in preparation for a concert in February. For those of you less familiar with the smaller-sized keyboard insert, here’s a link with tons of information: (http://www.steinbuhler.com/). Once you check out the link, everything I mention below will make more sense to you!

As a small-handed pianist (barely able to reach an octave in my LH), I have spent my entire professional career seeking creative strategies for performing on standard-size keyboards. I have become a guru of innovative fingerings and have learned how to employ ergonomic movements and compensatory gestures in order to perform technically challenging repertoire on the conventional piano. Since the life-changing moment I started practicing on a ergonomically scaled piano keyboard (ESPK), I have experienced a whole new level of artistic and technical freedom. Research related to the use of ESPK suggests similar benefits for small-handed pianists, including less pain and injury, greater technical facility and accuracy, and ease of learning (Donison, 2000; Deahl and Wristen, 2003; Leone, 2003; Wristen and Hallbeck, 2006; Yoshimura and Chesky, 2009; Boyle, 2012). (Don’t fret: list of resources below!) Carol Leone (http://www.carolleone.com/) has been a longtime advocate for Steinbuhler and alternative-size keyboards. Rhonda Boyle, founder of Pianists For Alternatively Sized Keyboards (http://www.paskpiano.org/) and http://www.smallpianokeyboards.org/, has put together these wonderful web resources that she lovingly updates.

While I shall certainly blog about specific insights at a later date, I wanted to share a few eureka moments that stand out. If you have small hands, then you owe it to yourself to try one of these DS5.5TM (“7/8”) or DS6.0TM (“15/16″) keyboards manufactured by Steinbuhler. After learning a new work not previously in my repertoire, as well as revisiting an old musical friend, I have noticed several things:

•I am a better pianist that I thought (those of you who know me will realize the gravitas of that statement). Many of my previous struggles were related to playing the wrong-sized keyboard. How ecstatic I am that I can play four-voiced chords at any range of the piano without performing gymnastic feats to align my torso, elbow et al at a precise angle in a millionth of a second (and this is just for Schubert, people!). Now I can simply focus on how I want it to sound (Cue chorus of angels).

•My teaching often betrays my small-handed bias. After all, I’ve spent literally thousands of hours practicing with small hands. This is what I know. So, my suggestions for my students reflect that. Being able to hop from keyboard to keyboard in my office has allowed me to experience passages that shed light on the impact of hand size on musical choices, body alignment, technical solutions, etc. Every single teacher with whom I have worked had large hands (able to play a 9th or more; edge a 10th). Most of the technical advice I received, while valid for someone with larger hands, had to be translated in order for it to work for me. Think about it.

•No size keyboard will make up for faulty ergonomics. There are basic principles of biomechanics that work for everyone (Do yourself a favor and get this book by Thomas Mark: http://www.pianomap.com/book.html). That said, the degree of movement (how much you rotate, how far your torso needs to move, etc) varies based on hand size, length of arm, etc.

•I don’t really want to play the BIG piano again. Sigh.

Additional Resources:

Boyle, Rhonda & Boyle, Robin. “Hand Size and the Piano Keyboard: An Introduction to the Technical and Musical Benefits for Pianists Using Reduced-size Keyboards.” Piano Professional (Spring 2010): 18-23.

Deahl, Lora and Wristen, Brenda. “Strategies for Small-handed Pianists.” American Music Teacher 52 (June 2003): 21-25.

Donison, Christopher. “Performers’ Perspective: Hand Size vs. the Standard Piano Keyboard.” Medical Problems of Performing Artists 15 (September 2000): 111-113.

Leone, Carol. “Goldilocks Had A Choice.” American Music Teacher 52 (June 2003): 26-29.

Mark, Thomas.  What Every Pianist Needs to Know About the Body.  Chicago, IL: GIA Publications, 2003.

Wristen, Brenda; Jung, M. C.; Wismer, A. K . G.; and Hallbeck M. S. “Assessment of Muscle Activity and Joint Angles in Small-handed Pianists: A Pilot Study on the 7/8-Sized Keyboard Versus the Full-Sized Keyboard.” Medical Problems of Performing Artists 21(March 2006): 3-9.

Wristen, Brenda. “Avoiding Piano Related Injury: A Proposed Theoretical Procedure for Biomechanical Analysis.” Medical Problems of Performing Artists 15 (June 2000): 55-64.

Yoshimura, Eri and Chesky, Kris. “The Application of an Ergonomically Modified Keyboard to Reduce Piano-Related Pain.” MTNA e-journal (November 2009).

Yoshimura, Eri. “Risk Factor for Playing Related Pain among College Students and Piano Teachers: Possible solutions for Reducing Pain Using the Ergonomically Modified Keyboard.”  DMA Dissertation University of North Texas, 2009.

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3 thoughts on “Small Hands, Big Heart

  1. How hard is it for you to readjust to a regular keyboard after practicing on the 7/8ths piano? I have small hands as well and am a serious amateur pianist. I’d love to switch to a smaller keyboard but anyplace I would perform (other people’s houses, etc.) would have a regular sized keyboard.

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    1. Dear Judy,
      That’s a very important, yet complicated question to answer. Carol Leone has done some research on adjustment period and most advanced pianists are able to adapt within an hour. I know that marimbists often have to deal with this phenomenon as well, as their keyboards are not standardized and have different spacings. My personal issue has been that I decided to actually learn repertoire expressly for the 7/8, incorporating fingerings and musical decisions that I cannot perform on the standard size keyboard. In this case, I cannot transfer without big changes. This is because I plan on performing on the 7/8 this year and wanted to experience it without worrying about playing on the BIG piano later. However, I have practiced other repertoire with the intention of performing on the standard size keyboard and have been able to make the transfer quite easily. You just need to make sure that you choose fingerings that will transfer. The biggest issue is that you may not WANT to play the standard size keyboard once you feel how delightful it is to not have to work so hard to play chords, octaves, et al! Cheers!

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