How quickly could I adapt to a piano keyboard with narrower keys?
The experience of the majority of adult pianists who have played smaller keyboards is that they adapt to the new size remarkably quickly – generally in a matter of an hour or even less. Children generally adapt almost immediately. As many adults now playing smaller keyboards still have to play the conventional keyboard from time to time, their experience is that once they have gone through the initial adjustment process, they can swap between the two sizes immediately. They often only need one practice session, or brief warm-up, on the alternative size. The experience can be compared with driving two different cars (perhaps one manual and one automatic), or violinists who also play the viola. The adjustment from the conventional keyboard and the DS6.0® (15/16) is almost instantaneous. Contrary to common belief, playing a keyboard with narrower keys does not make it harder to go back to the conventional keyboard when one has to. The reverse tends to be the case – playing a keyboard that better suits your hands gives the pianist an experience of greatly reduced tension. This new knowledge helps to develop better habits and minimise tension on the larger keyboard. In 2015, Boston pianist Anna Arazi won third prize in the Dallas International Piano Competition playing on a DS6.0® keyboard, after just ONE day of practice on this reduced size. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tj1RNLn8K6g). See also the videos on this page: You can adapt quickly!
Wouldn’t a child who wants to become a concert pianist need to learn on the ‘standard’ keyboard?
Narrow keys have significant benefits for children to help them learn sound technique and not develop bad habits caused by a keyboard that is too big for their hands. The benefits in terms of comfort, reduced risk of injury, enjoyment, reduced learning times and accessible repertoire, are significant for children as well as for many adults. Talented children with small hands, especially girls, would not need to be ‘held back’ waiting for their hands to grow. Many other instruments are available in different sizes, for example, children are encouraged to play a violin that suits them ergonomically. Small children do not start off learning on an adult sized bicycle.
Wouldn’t it be impractical and expensive for many concert venues to have additional grand pianos?
It is not necessary to have two or more pianos in a concert venue, but interchangeable keyboards for the one grand piano. The cost of an additional keyboard and action is small compared with the cost of a concert instrument. The DS Standard Foundation (http://dsstandardfoundation.org) makes retrofitted action/keyboards for grand pianos which can be interchanged with the conventional keyboard within minutes. Ultimately, we need three standard sizes – the conventional keyboard with 6.5 inch octave, the DS5.5® (7/8), and the intermediate ‘Universal’ DS6.0® (15/16) size. This short video shows a keyboard being interchanged during a piano competition in Dallas, Texas. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BAjXItVoPsY&list=PLHBn-VaaOCGcJDCJ8f-BZx5VZS-IXcxDi&index=26
Are big hands really an advantage for piano playing?
There is now overwhelming evidence that having a larger hand span is a big advantage for a pianist, assuming they wish to have access to any advanced repertoire of their choice. The evidence comes from different fields, including piano-related pain and injury (epidemiological and clinical studies), principles of ergonomics and biomechanics, statistical information on pianists' hand spans and what this means for playing piano repertoire, and from the experiences of many pianists who play on narrower keys that better suit their hands. In addition, the gender imbalance among prize winners of international piano competitions and solo performing careers supports this evidence, given the significant difference in male and female hand spans. Refer to https://paskpiano.org/evidence-of-the-need-for-narrower-keys/ for details.
Isn’t it ‘cheating’ for some pianists to be able to play on narrower keys?
Pianists with large hands currently have an unfair advantage! Nobody suggests that adjusting stool height or installing raised pedals is unfair, or that prominent pianists who use, or have used, smaller keyboards (such as Josef Hofmann 100 years ago or Daniel Barenboim today), are ‘cheating’, or that Beethoven was ‘cheating’ because he played a keyboard that was smaller than today’s conventional size! Until smaller keyboards become more widespread in the community, then those pianists with smaller hands will be disadvantaged compared with others who do have access, but as more and more pianists get to try keyboards with narrower keys and become aware of the barriers they have faced all their lives, they will eventually generate the momentum to force change by the manufacturers. If piano playing were a purely physical competition, like running a marathon, then the aim would be to find out who can play the most notes in the shortest possible time! Piano playing is an art, not a sport. Most other musical instruments have more than one size available to suit the diversity of human physical characteristics. Even for many sports, runners are not expected to run in the same size shoes, or skiers use the same size skis!
Doesn’t the current piano keyboard, which has not changed in over a century, suit most adult pianists?
The keyboard size that became the current standard dates back to the 1880s when pianos became bigger to suit large performance venues and a keyboard of this size was acceptable to large-handed European male virtuosos such as Anton Rubinstein. (See Keyboard history). There is nothing ‘sacred’ about today’s conventional size. Pianists with smaller hands – women, children and people of Asian descent – were not considered. If the manufacturers were designing the piano today, one would expect that they would conduct careful studies of hand spans across the human population and relate this data to the demands of the piano repertoire. If only one size could be provided it would be most likely be close to the DS6.0®. The basic premise of ergonomics is to adapt tools to humans, not the other way around. What we have is a piano keyboard which is too small for practically no-one, but too big for many. It can be compared with ski manufacturers only providing a size based on the what suited the first male skiers in Switzerland, and expecting everyone to use that size. Sometimes people say that there has been no demand for change. But people rarely express demand for innovation before they have experienced a new product. One only has to consider the constant innovation in the IT industry – anticipating what consumers may like, testing alternatives and then creating the demand. For nearly everyone on the planet, they have only ever seen and experienced one piano keyboard size in their lives, so have difficulty imagining the implications of a different size.
Does a piano keyboard with narrower keys have an inferior or weaker sound?
The volume and quality of sound in an acoustic piano depends on the instrument itself including the size of the soundboard, strings and other components, not on the width of the keys. While voicing of keys may produce a sound that is different to that of another keyboard, this is not a function of key width. For digital keyboards, the question of key width is also irrelevant.
Many small-handed pianists play very well. Surely the only requirement is to be able to reach octaves?
Just because a pianist can ‘reach’ octaves and certain chords doesn’t mean that they are playing within a healthy range of motion. Muscles and joints repeatedly operating at their extremes will wear out over time, leading to pain and injury resulting from overuse. Having a span large enough to play extended passages of octaves without a build-up of tension is especially important for any pianist that does not wish to be restricted to baroque and early classical repertoire. Excessive stretching and tension also impede musicality. This includes lack of power and control over dynamic range, rhythm and speed. Pianists who experience pain are also often reluctant to speak out! The mentality of ‘no pain, no gain’ is still persistent. Although excellent technique is very important and can help overcome certain obstacles, a pianist with a larger hand span will advance to a higher level and will be able to play a larger repertoire than his/her small-handed counterpart, everything else being equal (including musical ability). The higher the level of difficulty of repertoire, the more this handicap becomes apparent. Overcoming many technical obstacles often leads a small-handed pianist to ‘work-around’ solutions which nearly always require more practice and/or produce an end result which is sub-optimal. Pianists who now play alternatively sized keyboards have come to appreciate the far-reaching technical difficulties they used to face due to hand size, and how their previous need to focus on just ‘getting the notes’ prevents full musical expression. The view of some that ‘hand size does not matter’ is not based on sound principles of ergonomics and biomechanics.
Isn’t the potential market for narrower keyboards very small?
Recent peer-reviewed research shows that around 87% of women and 24% of men have hand spans that are too small for the current ‘standard’ keyboard, assuming they want to play a wide range of advanced repertoire without inadequate hand span being a handicap. A recent survey of piano students in an American university found that 75% wished they had larger hands. Playing a keyboard with narrower keys effectively gives the pianist ‘larger hands’. Unlike their counterparts learning string instruments, children are currently forced to learn on an instrument designed for men with large hands. Providing choice would lead to an expanded market overall, as those who start learning the piano would be less likely to give up in frustration or due to injury, and would also be more likely to continue playing into old age.
If small-handed pianists need narrower keys, surely those with ‘fat fingers’ should have access to larger keyboards?
There is no evidence that there is significant demand for keyboards larger than the conventional 6.5 inch octave keyboard, which is indeed ‘large’ by historical standards. While there are some Caucasian men who have difficulty fitting their fingers between the black keys, there are possible solutions in relation to design of the black keys. Black key shape and size is not standardised. Men with thick fingers do not necessarily have a very large hand span, so may not want to lose some of their available reach by having a keyboard with even wider white keys. Pianists worldwide – even including many concert pianists – overwhelmingly complain about ‘small hands’ not ‘large hands’.