PIANISTS FOR ALTERNATIVELY SIZED KEYBOARDS

‘This is such a profound, life-changing journey.  Now that I am in the autumn of my years, I am trying not to dwell on the years and hundreds of hours wasted trying to do things that are physically impossible for me to do!  And though some of my teachers called me “gifted,” no one was honest or kind enough to tell me the truth, so I just kept pounding away.  One of the first things with my new 5.5 was to work out the gnarly 2-measure passage in the Rach op 3/2.  After hundreds of hours of drills [in the past], it took about 20 minutes to master it.  The wasted effort nearly makes me angry. I now understand, that in reality I couldn’t play the large one before, a fact that was long hidden by lots of self-deception telling me I needed more discipline and practice.(Anonymous, Olympia, Washington State, 2018).

A recent doctoral dissertation at the University of North Texas surveyed piano students and faculty members from universities across the USA. Many of the responses illustrate widespread ignorance and misinformation about the topic of hand size in relation to the conventional piano keyboard.  A copy can be downloaded here: https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc1248515/?fbclid=IwAR14ad2V9zvuZZZS5x9ZaN8ossosasT95Ts0UVZi3GK8kP8jh1C0nUiJ1nQ

Many pianists, teachers and health professionals have been raising awareness of the possibility that the current size keyboard is not ideal for all, and that keyboards with narrower keys may well suit the majority of the population. 

However, these activists encounter considerable resistance to the idea of moving away from the ‘one-size suits all’ paradigm.

These barriers are largely ‘cultural baggage’, including an unfortunate self-reinforcing mixture of myths and pseuo-science handed down through the generations of pianists and teachers who have never played keyboards with narrower keys.

A list of common objections and queries and suggested responses is available here: http://paskpiano.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/PASK-Common-objections-and-responses_March-2019.pdf

Lack of access to alternatively sized keyboards

A major disincentive for a pianist wanting to switch to a keyboard of a different size is that they are not easily available. In practical terms, every piano keyboard anywhere is the conventional size. Major piano manufacturers do not produce pianos with narrower keys, except perhaps as a rare, ‘special’ order. A handful of small manufacturers can and do, but not in enough supply. Small-scale production, logistics and cost prohibit worldwide access.

The plight of pianists who do have reduced-size keyboards at home illustrates the complexities. While they may reach a very high standard with challenging repertoire on the narrower keys, away from their own keyboard the only option are conventional pianos. This means that they struggle to play many pieces as well and have to drop some of their repertoire completely. To play outside their home they may want to have access to a conventional keyboard for final practice. This may mean having a grand piano with interchangeable keyboards or acquiring a good quality digital piano or keyboard with conventional keys.  As keyboards with narrower keys become more widely accepted and accessible in the community this problem will be much reduced.

Exam regulations

The use of alternatively sized piano keyboards for music examinations should be accepted without question, given the acceptance of different sizes in many other musical instruments.  Examination policies in many countries disallow the use of different sized keyboards, even by children. This discourages teachers and parents, schools and universities from investing in any alternative keyboards that are available. While such policies are often based on prevailing attitudes and misconceptions, there is the over-riding practical impediment of a lack of suitable, affordable pianos or digital keyboads. They need to be affordable for teachers and students, and for examination bodies to include them in their centres where most students do their exams.  

Examination boards need to recognise the fact that students may be taught techniques and repertoire that, on the standard keyboard, may result in pain and injury. Allowing alternatively sized keyboards in examinations will encourage teachers to start using them and parents to gradually follow their lead. This should result in a reduced drop-out rate among young pianists. Too many young people suffer from frustration and lack of self-esteem at not being able to progress satisfactorily despite the encouragement of their teachers, who should know that they have hands that are too small to allow them to reach their full potential.

Choice of keyboard size will help to ‘level the playing field’ for pianists with smaller hand spans. Currently, pianists with larger hand spans have a clear advantage.

In August 2012, the New South Wales branch of the Australian Music Examinations Board (AMEB) stated that they had no objection in principle to the use of piano keyboards of different sizes for examinations. Although not currently available in exam headquarters, teachers who hold exams in their own studios are free to use them.

Beethoven composed on a keyboard with narrower keys, yet these regulations mean that a student would not be permitted to perform a Beethoven sonata on the very piano on which it was composed!

Technology and finance

Major piano manufacturers seem to be uninterested in questioning the 130 year- old tradition of piano keyboard size given that they see few pianists complain or demand change. This is despite a potential massive market for keyboards with narrower keys, based on credible and accepted science. This lack of interest could largely reflect a lack of interest and negative attitudes among many in the ‘piano world’. As described elsewhere on this page, many of the ‘barriers’ are cultural and largely based on thet fact that nearly all pianists in the world today have not tried alternative sizes. 

As manufacturers are not geared up for mass production of keyboards of different sizes, a rare order for a reduced size keyboard, if accepted, is seen as ‘special’ and is therefore likely to incur a high price and often a long wait for delivery.

For digital manufacturers, set-up costs for an alternative keyboard size are significant. In the case of acoustic keyboards, the current design of grand and upright pianos dates back to the 1880s when today’s conventional keyboad size was adopted. This piano design, involving cross-stringing, does not suit narrower keys. For cost-effective mass production, some redesign of the acoustic piano and/or action will be needed. See also the references here: http://smallpianokeyboards.org/manufacturers-and-experiencing-alternatively-sized-keyboards/

Attitudes and misconceptions

Incorrect assumptions

These can usually be easily disproved.  The most common is that pianists will have insurmountable difficulties in adapting to a different sized keyboard and also when swapping between keyboards. Yet note how violinists often start with smaller instruments and some often switch between the violin and viola.  And flute players may swap to the piccolo, or clarinetists swap between different clarinets, evcen in the same performance. See: Feedback from pianists who have tried  or played keyboards with narrower keys. 

Another wrong assumption is that the rduced sized keyboards currently available for acoustic pianos must be inferior in terms of volume of sound or tone quality because of their size. Finally, some assume that the current keyboard size was settled according to sound ergonomic principles and what would suit the maximum number of piano players. This is not the case – the current keyboard is what certain European male virtuosi of the late 1880’s found to be comfortable.

The feeling that 'things will never change'

Many pianists feel that there’s no point in moving to, or even trying a different sized keyboard, because the industry will not change. People also sometimes assume that having more than one keyboard size would be ‘too difficult or too expensive’ for the piano manufacturers, with higher prices as a result. But eventually a manufacturer will recognise the potential expanded market if alternatively keyboards are an option. While the situation may take time to change in a major way, it is important to take a long term view and reflect on the capacity of many industries to innovate in ways that often cannot be foreseen. A piano with a wonderful sound and a method of changing key sizes in a second may be just around the corner. 

Lack of experience with alternatively sized keyboards

Few pianists alive today have ever had the chance to try playing on a piano with narrower keys. This means that typical small-handed pianists do not realize how much easier everything is when playing a keyboard that is more suited to their hand size. Chris Donison has made the important observation that larger-handed players never experienced the same problems as small-handed players because their hands were big enough by the time they were playing advanced repertoire, and that smaller-handed players have never had the chance to experience the feeling of having larger hands.

Could skiers of 50 years ago have imagined how the Alpine skis of today (which have become much shorter, flexible and lighter) could make skiing so much easier?

One can imagine an interesting experiment whereby pianists with larger hands are forced to play on an even larger keyboard – one which is too big for them. Such an experiment would be criticized as being ‘cruel’: but this is what happens to more than half of adult pianists now, not to mention children!

Inaccurate assumptions about the hand spans of certain famous pianists

It is not uncommon to hear or read claims that a particular famous pianist had ‘small hands’. However, in most cases, people making these claims do not know the exact hand span of the pianist mentioned. It is also unlikely that they have an accurate concept of an ‘average’ hand span or any appreciation of the variation in actual hand spans across the community, including gender and ethnic differences. A relatively bony hand with narrow fingers may be deemed to be ‘small’, when in fact its reach may be surprisingly large. A hand that may be labelled ‘small’ for a pianist might in fact be above average considering the population as a whole. Often, male pianists who say they have ‘small hands’ really mean ‘small for a man’ but in fact they are large compared to most females. A world famous pianist might say his hands are ‘small’ when he is only comparing them to the very large hands of other top pianists who represent a very select group. Alicia de Larrocha is a pianist often mentioned as having had ‘small hands’, an assumption based solely on her height. But she herself said that she could reach a 10th in her heyday (and this can be confirmed by listening to her early recordings while following the score) – a task beyond the ability of more than 80% of adult women. See: http://smallpianokeyboards.org/hand-span-versus-height/

Of course, some small-handed pianists can do exceptionally well through sheer persistence, luck in avoiding injury, and through a wise choice of repertoire. But they would almost certainly have reached greater heights and had access to a larger repertoire if they had had a keyboard better suited to their needs. How many female pianists have made world class recordings of the complete Chopin or Rachmaninoff Etudes, for example? Most will inevitably need to be selective with repertoire that they present in public or choose to record. Everything else being equal, the mismatch between hand span and keyboard size will disadvantage a pianist who wishes to play a wide range of repertoire (beyond baroque and early classical) at a concert performance level.  See: Hand span data

The view that 'hand size does not matter, it's all about technique'

Too many teachers tell their students that it is ‘all about technique’ and ‘finding a way around’ the technical challenges. This attitude is not based on any consideration of established scientific principles of ergonomics and biomechanics, nor on any actual experience with playing or teaching with a different sized keyboard. Most cruelly, a student may be led to believe that their difficulties are not at all related to their hand span, but their lack of practice or talent. It is cruel for teachers to let their students – mainly young women – believe they could reach great heights when in fact, if they have small hands, they are physically incapable of ever doing so, except perhaps with a highly restricted repertoire. Otto Ortmann alluded to this back in 1929 – see: Principles of ergonomics and biomechanics

Inappropriate comparisons with sports

Most sports have purely physical aims, for example, who can run or swim the fastest or jump the highest. While we accept that body shape and size is important in being able to reach an elite level in many sports, we must remember that the aim of piano playing is not to find out who can play the most notes in the shortest time! The aim should be to produce beautiful music to please the performer and delight an audience. Greater ease at the keyboard will lead to more secure and pleasing performances. For certain winter sports where artistry is important, it is taken for granted that a competitor is able to choose the equipment that best suits their body size, rather than being handicapped by having to use the same equipment that suits the largest competitors!

Psychological blocks

Pianists who might actually benefit from alternatively sized keyboards are often the most likely to show these reactions, which include:-

  • Pointless masochism – ‘I enjoy the challenge of making things hard for myself’.
  • A subconscious fear that trying such a keyboard may well be a revelation and would therefore turn their world upside down. In particular, they may fear the discovery that their many long hours of practice on a keyboard that was too large for them involved a lot of wasted time. 
  • Using a keyboard with narrower keys is ‘cheating’. (If anyone has an unfair advantage currently, it’s pianists with large hands.) 
  • Using a keyboard with narrower keys is somehow ‘sissy’- perhaps more likely to be felt by male pianists who don’t want to be seen to ‘need’ such a keyboard. They may fear that their performing career may be disadvantaged by showing any interest in the idea, especially given the current lack of availability in concert venues.
  • ‘I had to suffer from pain and overcome the additional challenges brought about by having small hands when I was young, so others can put up with it too’. 
  • ‘Playing with pain could provide deeper insight into the music’. 
  • The piano keyboard is ‘sacred’ and has stood the test of time. (See: Keyboard history)
  • ‘Smaller keyboards are ‘toys’ or ‘not real pianos’ – but what did Mozart and Beethoven compose on?

For a list of common objections like these and some suggested responses, download the document provided below. 

For an interesting perspective on the history of attempts to gain support for alternatively sized keyboards in Japan, see: http://littlehands782.blogspot.jp/2014/01/the-history-and-attitudes-to-smaller.html

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