A pianist is impressive and deemed highly skilled when playing the piano if the musical piece requires having his fingers fly over the keys as they go up and down the keyboard in a fast and dramatic manner. It never really occurred to those watching in awe how difficult or easy it is for the piano player to do it, only that he is good at it. Others thought it is only a matter of skill. Not much thought is given to how the size of one’s hand can impact the way he played or the playability of the piano for people with small hands and short fingers.
About Piano Keyboard Sizes
Having a “one size fits all” piano keyboard that has been prevalent in the last century can limit the ability of the piano player as well as limit the kind of music that one plays. This is something that boggles the mind considering there are plenty of other musical instruments that are built or customized to accommodate people of different sizes.
The piano has since evolved after it was invented in the 1700s. A variety of size and design was made available by different manufacturers. There were smaller keyboards specifically made for the middle class and upper-class women back then, but they were only able to perform in the privacy of their homes. It was the men who performed in public, which was probably the reason why in the 1880s, the size of the piano was standardized to suit men. It was also said that Anton Rubinstein and Frank Liszt, highly regarded European virtuoso pianists and composers in the 19th century, were consulted by major manufacturers and were involved in designing the piano at that time. The piano manufacturers even organized tours or built concert halls for these famous pianists as a way to market or promote their products.
Hand Span and Piano Keyboard Sizes & Octaves
The hand span is the distance between the tip of the little finger to the tip of the thumb. Men and women have different hand spans. A woman generally has a smaller hand and, therefore, a shorter hand span than that of a man. Of course, there are exceptions as only 85% of women, and 25% of men have small hand spans. Asians usually have smaller hands than that of Caucasians. Given that the piano keyboard is designed for those with big hands and long fingers, playing an octave will pose some difficulty if not impossible to those with small hands and a shorter hand span.
A typical keyboard has 88 keys consisting of 52 white keys and 36 black keys, and it has seven octaves and three notes below the bottom C. Each octave has five black keys and seven white keys. Back then, an octave span ranged from 125mm (4.9 inches) to 170mm (6.7 inches), while modern pianos have an octave span of 164-165mm (6.5 inches). When you add a ninth note, it becomes 7.6 inches; a tenth note becomes 8.5 inches, and the 11th note becomes 9.4 inches.
With a span of 6.5 or 6.7 inches, one could reach the octave on the edge. The longer the hand span, the lesser the tension needed to reach the 9th with minimal comfort on the 10th and possibly reaching the 11th on its edge.
A small hand is considered to have a hand span of fewer than 8.5 inches. Because of this, it is quite obvious that playing fast passages of octaves as well as large chords would be difficult and uncomfortable, if at all possible. You are also likely to press other keys as you reach the 10th with the hand on its proper position. Although there are exceptions, a man’s hand span is said to generally have an inch longer than a woman, which means he is able to reach an extra white key on the piano keyboard. There are even men with hands that are three inches bigger than women, which definitely makes playing much easier.
Considering that most repertoires in the past were written by male composers, it stands to reason that it would be the men who would be able to play them comfortably. This also explains why it is only males who were considered professionals back then while females were relegated to being amateurs.
Classical Pianos with Narrower Keys
It is interesting to note that Polish American Josef Hofmann was able to make a name for himself as a great pianist considering that he has small hands. He was regarded as a child prodigy as he was five when he gave his first recital. Even Rubinstein was impressed when he saw him performed Beethoven’s “C minor Piano Concerto” at age seven. At age nine, he was able to go on a European Tour. He studied music afterward and became the only private student of Rubinstein. In the early 20th century, Steinway & Sons built a piano keyboard with keys that are a bit narrower than usual to suit him.
Manufacturers made pianos with narrow keys in recent years when they recognized the need for them. American piano manufacturer, David Steinbuhler, met the concert pianist, Christopher Donison, in the early 1990s and discovered that the latter has a 7/8 keyboard installed in his concert grand piano as he was unable to master great repertoire because of his small hands. It has an octave that is equivalent to a 7th on a regular keyboard. The two collaborated and retrofitted pianos with smaller keyboards they named DS (Donison-Steinbuhler) 7/8 and DS 15/16, which they later changed to DS 5.5 and DS 6.0 to correspond to the octave size.
Kawai Australia also made a customized grand piano with narrow keys in 2013 for an Australian pianist named Erica Booker.
Practical Tips for Pianists with Small Hands and Short Fingers
Having a shorter hand span does mean being unable to play certain classical repertoires not only comfortable but also possibly injuring the hands to reach that 10th or 11th key. Clinical study shows that a small hand size might be a factor in injuries related to playing the piano. Here are some tips to help improve your playing skills:
Perform Stretching Exercise for Your Hands and Fingers
You can start by placing your pinky or thumb on the key of C, then spread your hand, stretching it across the keyboard, and hold. Next, play musical pieces that have octaves. Also, do octave scales and try to increase the speed. Finally, massage your hands often. Do not overdo your stretching exercises. It is said that Chopin had a medium-sized hand, but he was able to reach the 10th intervals because he had flexible fingers.
Move Up the Keyboard as You Play
Instead of playing with your fingers at the edge of the keys, try placing them in the middle or even higher between the black keys to keep most keys within reach. Find the position that would work best with you. It might feel awkward only at first until you get used to it.
Choose A Repertoire That Suits You
Some classical music was written by famous composers with big hands such as Rachmaninoff and Liszt, who both have an octave span reaching the 13th. It was also said that some of the great piano pieces were composed on smaller keyboards before they were standardized, which makes it harder to play on one with a greater octave span. If you find the repertoire too difficult for you, pick something else that you would be able to play with ease. There are lots of music pieces written by composers with only a hand span reaching a 12th or a 9th.
Invert or Break Up The Chords
If you have difficulty playing the chords, you can invert them by moving the lowest note on the chord up an octave. You can also try breaking them up in such a way that one set of notes is played right after the other, or you can redistribute the fingering. If this does not work, you can use one finger to play two notes.
Omit The Notes
Omitting notes does not mean you would butcher the musical piece. You should do this with caution because you do not want to ruin something beautiful just to make it work for you. It would be best if you consult your teacher on this.
Use A Custom-Sized Keyboard
There is no reason why you should not have a customized keyboard with narrow keys in order to play music from your favorite composers. You would not have to strain so much to reach a longer span for chord and octave passages. The hand would be more relaxed as there is no more need for extreme tension when stretching. This also means reducing the risk of pain and injury from fingers to the forearm. The good thing is that there are piano manufacturers that can do this for you. It would naturally cost you a lot of money, but it would be worth it in the end. Check online and look into your options.
Granted, you were inspired to become a pianist, whether as a professional or as a hobbyist, by great composers, and that you would want to be able to play their music compositions. However, if it is too difficult for you or if unable to do so, do not push yourself to the point of hurting your hand, wrist, and fingers. Accept your limitations. Remember that playing the piano is supposed to bring you joy and not stress you out or cause you pain.