Goldilocks Had a Choice

By Leone, Carol | American Music Teacher, June-July 2003 | Go to article overview

Goldilocks Had a Choice


Leone, Carol, American Music Teacher


Goldilocks Story

Once upon a time, there was a little girl who stumbled into a warm and inviting concert hall. On the stage, she saw three beautiful concert grand pianos. "Oooh," she thought, "they look so wonderful. I'll bet I can play quite well on them!" So, she sat down on the first piano bench she came to. As she joyfully stretched her little hands out over her octave passages, a startled frown appeared on her face. "Ooh, ow! These keys are too big!" she exclaimed. And so she moved to the next beautiful, shining, black instrument. Alas, it not only had large keys, but a stiff and unyielding action. "Oh, you big bear!" she scolded the instrument. "Why won't you let me play the way I know I can?" Feeling dejected, she nonetheless shot a hopeful glance at the third piano. It looked identical to the other two, but she sat down at it and caressed the beautiful keys. As she began to play, a thrill and delight came over her. "These keys are just right! Oh, look! I can play large chords with ease, and don't my hands look ever so pretty and comfortable on these small keys?" And so she played all of her repertoire, then curled up happily on the bench and dreamed of owning her own small keyboard.

In the fall of 2000, Southern Methodist University became the first American university to own and study the reduced-size keyboard manufactured by Steinbuhler and Company. My college students and I have been studying the effects of using this reduced-size keyboard, which was retrofitted into a Steinway B. We have spent more than two years experimenting with repertoire and etudes on this keyboard, and have had amazing results.

We set about to discover the meaning of the following words from the manufacturer: "The conventional piano-keyboard, established more than 100 years ago, is too big for many, depriving them of the joy of mastering the great piano repertoire. Up until now a pianist could only imagine what it feels like to play the piano with larger hands." (1) We wanted to experience the results of having "larger hands." What would be the technical and musical benefits? In addition, I wondered if this keyboard could offer relief to pianists with playing-related injuries. Further, I imagined that the use of the smaller keyboard might revolutionize traditional teaching of children.

In today's ergonomic world, the overriding principle "form follows function" is the key to the success of most products. In our case, the "form" is our instrument, and the "function" is the playing of it. With ergonomic principles in mind, many have begun to question whether small-handed pianists are captive to a false form, and are there many unable to fully realize the function? For most small-handed pianists this has been a moot question for a very long time. With the advent of this excellent new technology for retrofitting standard pianos with a reduced-size keyboard, a new frontier has opened for pianists with small hands. This new territory is open for those pianists and educators willing to make a paradigm shift in exploring the musical and technical benefits of the smaller size.

The Technology

The idea is not new. Early pianos, of course, had shorter and narrower keys. The famous pianist Josef Hofmann used a reduced-sized keyboard designed for him by Steinway in the 1920s and '30s when he toured as a concert artist. In the nine-teenth century, a Czech company designed smaller keyboards "for ladies."

Today, the conventional keyboard has an approximate 6.5-inch octave with an over-all width of 48 inches or more. The smaller keyboards from Steinbuhler and Company have a 5.5-inch octave and are just slightly less than 7/8 size in proportion. The company also builds 15/16 size keyboards that have a 6-inch octave, for medium-sized hands.

When one pulls out the action, it is possible to see how the treble keys fan to the right, and the bass keys fan to the left, allowing the reduced-size keyboard to reach the piano's string locations.

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