Strategies for Small-Handed Pianists

By Deahl, Lora; Wristen, Brenda | American Music Teacher, June-July 2003 | Go to article overview

Strategies for Small-Handed Pianists

Deahl, Lora, Wristen, Brenda, American Music Teacher

When pianos were first invented, they were similar in size to harpsichords. Hand size was rarely a limiting factor throughout the eighteenth century because the keys were short and narrow and the repertoire usually contained intervals no larger than the octave. However, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the piano gradually expanded in range and key size. The use of cast iron frames led to an exponential increase in string tension, resulting in heavier and deeper actions that exacerbated problems for small-handed players. Nineteenth-century concert pianos typically featured actions with 6 millimeters of travel depth, requiring 23 grams of weight for full key depression and string tension in the middle register that ranged from 12 to 15 grams. (1) By the end of the century, string tension had risen to 80 kilograms in the middle register, resulting in a heavier action with 9 millimeters of travel depth, requiring 45 grams for full key depression. Today's Steinway grands feature even heavier actions and larger hammers: 90 kilograms of string tension and 10.5 millimeters of travel depth, requiring 50 to 60 grams of key depression weight.

As the piano evolved, a "one-size-fits-all" mentality prevailed. Small-handed pianists resorted to using mechanical devices that purportedly stretched the hand, usually requiring the participant to force fingers over sized wedges. For example, the "Hand Extender," designed by Frederick Crane of Massachusetts in 1899, featured a threaded rod located between two finger slings, which could force apart any pair of fingers (not necessarily adjacent) for extended periods of time. All these devices were ineffective and had the potential for seriously damaging the hand.

Many important piano teachers including Erno Dohnanyi, Alfred Cortot, Isidor Philipp, Heinrich Neuhaus, Otto Ortmann, Louis Kenmer, Adele Marcus and Josef Hofmann commented or wrote about the problems of small hands. Some pedagogues prescribed relatively benign treatments such as kneading and massaging the joints and fingers or soaking the hands in hot water to loosen joints. Others recommended regimens that were clearly dangerous--finger gymnastics for strength conditioning, lifting weights with the fingers and exercises that stretched the fingers apart. Typical exercises prescribed by Dohnanyi, Johann Pischna and Marcus advocated holding down the notes of a widely spaced seventh chord, lifting only one or two fingers, and then sounding those fingers as loudly as possible while keeping the elbow close to the body and the wrist low.

These highly questionable "remedies" continue to be widely prescribed, contributing to the numbers of piano students who sustain serious physical injury. Studies indicate that more than half the musicians with health-related injuries are keyboardists, and the afflicted are disproportionately female. (2) We have encountered many gifted students with small hands who have had to overcome great difficulties when playing standard-sized keyboards. Their special needs frequently are ignored, misunderstood or underestimated by teachers who have never had to personally grapple with issues of hand size. Children in the beginning stages of piano lessons also are at risk. Diagnosing physical discomfort in young students is difficult because problems related to small-handedness are compounded by incoordination stemming from a lack of fine motor control. It is imperative that we educate ourselves about the risks of small hand size so we can help our students develop healthy and appropriate coping strategies.

Anatomic Generalizations

In 1988, Christoph Wagner measured the hands of pianists from many angles in an attempt to correlate certain hand shapes with pianistic success. Wagner was not able to identify a single hand type as a predictor of success at the instrument. Instead, Wagner's measurements indicated that people with many different hand sizes and shapes played the piano with at least some success. …

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