I was searching the internet for information on piano technique for small hands at the end of 2006 when I came across these words. Christopher Donison is a pianist/composer/conductor/arts festival director in British Columbia and he previously had a smaller keyboard custom-made for his Steinway grand. In the 1990s he linked up with David Steinbuhler, a textile manufacturer and engineer from Pennsylvania and together, they created a second official keyboard size called the DS standard, 7/8 the width of the conventional keyboard. Each key is 7/8 the width of the normal key width. I will now pass around David Steinbuhler’s mock-up on this fold-up card showing the 7/8 and conventional keyboards to scale. In his first email to me, Christopher commented on my search for a book or information on technique for small hands, saying: ‘ I am not sure why you would want to read such a book. What you really want is the opportunity to PLAY such a keyboard in this lifetime, not read about it, or about other ways to mitigate your handicap. To cut a long story short, I now have a 7/8 DS keyboard in my grand piano, made by David Steinbuhler and installed in April this year (2009). This keyboard can be interchanged with the conventional keyboard (which I still keep) in a few minutes.
Late last year, while waiting for my keyboard to be made and sent from the US, I decided to so some research of my own….
Firstly, some statistics.
We could find only two sets of data on hand spans – reflecting maximum stretch between the thumb and 5th finger on a flat surface – collected by Steinbuhler at the US music teachers’ convention in 2004, and some 1988 data from Germany. Both sets of data relate to pianists, so may not be representative of the general population. Both sets of data show the significantly larger hand span among males compared with females. You can see this difference in the Steinbuhler data here, as well as the wide variation of hand spans within each gender. Also note Steinbuhler’s suggested keyboard ‘zones’ for the 7/8, conventional and the 15/16 keyboard – an intermediate size, which he also makes. I will use inches rather than centimetres today, reflecting the US data. Data on characteristics such as people’s heights, weights etc, generally follow a normal distribution, sometimes known as a bell curve. It is most likely that if we had a large enough sample of hand span measurements, it would closely approximate the classic bell curve. Incidentally, we found little data (one article only on Indian women) on ethnic differences although many authors have noted that people of Asian ethnicity have smaller hands than Caucasians.
The Steinbuhler and Wagner data are quite similar. Firstly looking at the quartiles, the third quartile for females is similar to the first quartile for males. This means that approx 75% of males have spans above 8.5 inches and 75% of females are below 8.2 inches. Secondly looking at averages, the average male span of 8.9 inches is approx 1 inch greater than the average female span of about 8 inches.
We can summarise these results in the form of two hypotheses: - The average span of an adult male is one inch greater than that of an adult female. - About 75% of females have hand spans smaller than the 75% of males with the largest spans.
In order to link hand span with the maximum white key interval that someone can play on a piano keyboard, I measured hand spans of about 25 Melbourne pianists. Results for some are shown in the table. Both thumb to 5 th finger (total) spans, as well as 2 nd to 5 th finger spans were measured (columns 3 & 4). The ratio of the 2-5 to the 1-5 span is shown in column 5 – this is a good indicator of capacity to stretch notes within large chords, arpeggios etc. You can see the wide range of measurements and distinct female and male clusters. I also recorded the maximum interval each person could play – and noted whether it was ‘on the edge of the white keys’ or ‘comfortable’ – meaning that they could slide their fingers in along the keys at least to the start of the black notes.
To show this information graphically, we will look at the Steinbuhler data again. When looking at he keyboard below, imagine that a person has their thumb (right hand) on middle C (C1) and the notes you see (C2, D2 etc) represent intervals of an octave, 9 th etc that the pianist can reach using the thumb and 5 th finger. Just looking at the keyboard dimensions shown above, one might assume that a person with a 7 inch hand should be able to play an octave – but in reality that will only be able to play an octave ‘on the edge’ but will need a span of at least 7.5 inches to play it comfortably. To play a 9 th comfortably requires a span of about 8.4 inches. These ‘comfort zones’ are shown as coloured rectangles. For each interval, the span required to play it comfortably is about the same as the total width of all the notes measuring to their outside edges (i.e. 8 notes for an octave) . The average female can play an octave comfortably and a ninth ‘on the edge’. The average male can play a 9 th comfortably and a 10 th ‘on the edge’.
The impact of transferring to a 7/8 keyboard can be illustrated here. Effectively it adds one white note to the maximum interval a pianist can stretch. For an individual, one extra white note takes them up about an inch in effective hand size. For example, someone with a 7 inch span becomes equivalent to someone with an 8 inch span on the conventional keyboard. The hand of the average female with an 8 inch span becomes equivalent to the average male with a 9 inch span. Another way of looking at it is that the female hand span distribution moves sideways to be more or less equivalent to the male distribution.
I now want to leave the discussion of hand spans and intervals and explore the benefits of reduced-size keyboards more generally. The words here were in Christopher Donison’s first email to me…emphasising that the benefits are much more than just being able to play a 9 th , 10 th or whatever.
Now to quickly summarise the man findings from the literature – further detail is in our paper.
Most literature relates to identifying risk factors generally for pianists with pain and/or injury problems. Females are generally more at risk, and hand size is one risk factor that has been identified for pianists. Peter Bragge’s (from Melbourne University) review in 2005 noted the limitations of the research up to that point, including the lack of statistical significance testing in many cases.
Hand size has firmed up as a real risk factor through more recent research. Indications that playing octaves and large chords are linked to pain or injury. The basis of the science of ergonomics is that ‘form follows function’ – design of tools and appliances need to be in accordance with the dimensions of the human hand. Brenda Wristen (Uni of Nebraska, Lincoln) summarised motions that are likely to contribute to injury and concluded that small-handed pianists are at higher risk due to the greater degree of lateral wrist motion, flexion, extension and deviation than for large-handed pianists. It doesn’t of course follow that small hands always lead to injury (it has not in my case). However I believe that those with small hands have to work a lot harder to maintain good technique and the consequences of poor technique are likely to be more serious.
In the last few years, research underway in the US is making use of 7/8 keyboards. Wristen has defined small handed pianists as having a span < 8 inches. In her research, pianists’ hands and arms were wired up to measure muscle stress and joint angles – results demonstrate the benefits of smaller keyboards for this group. Yoshimura & Chesky (Uni of North Texas) are undertaking some high tech research – very recent story and video clip on the web – linked to the withdrawal of a pianist from the recent Van Cliburn competition due to a hand injury.
Leone and Donison have published articles summarising their experiences. Note that Carol Leone has a 1-5 hand span of 7.8 inches, not far below the female ‘average’. Benefits described go way beyond pain and injury issues – cover a wide range of musical and technical benefits relating to performance excellence. Adjustment to different size keyboard and swapping – much easier than one might expect.
Now a brief overview of the survey we conducted earlier this year.
Contacts provided by David Steinbuhler and also Carol Leone (past and present students). All live in the US or Canada.
Results confirmed the relatively fast and easy adjustment to the different size, and the relative ease of adapting pieces from one keyboard to the other. The 22 skills are shown on the next slide.
Respondents were asked to rate the degree of improvement for these 22 skills when playing the 7/8 compared with the conventional keyboard. I’ll give you a few seconds to read these.
The four skills shown are those for which there was greatest agreement that the degree of improvement was ‘considerable’ or ‘dramatic’. Wide variation in responses for some skills – likely to relate to repertoire differences (e.g. leaps, double sixths) and subjectivity of self-ratings. Those with larger hands in the group (>7.5 inches) reported a similar number of ‘considerable’ or ‘dramatic’ improvements as those with smaller hands (<7.5 inches).
Just four examples given here – results for all 22 are in our paper. ‘ Trills/ornaments’ – mostly Nil or Slight Very positive responses for ‘broken octaves’ and ‘feeling of security’. Mixed responses for ‘evenness of rhythm and tone’.
Disadvantages – e.g. having to swap keyboards to practice for performances elsewhere, extra expense and space required to store two keyboards
The last part of the presentation highlights areas of piano-playing which are significantly easier or improved in some way, based on my own experience of playing a 7/8 keyboard or a few weeks. For me, nearly everything is dramatically or noticeably easier – even some scales such as B flat minor, some ornaments (if they extend over 3 or 4 notes), and there is a noticeable difference with double thirds. I can now also have some appreciation of how hand size influences piano playing. Having experimented with a range of repertoire, my view is that, now with an effective hand size of 8 inches (female average) when using the 7/8, this is certainly far from ideal for a lot of repertoire (e.g. many Romantic and 20 th century works). For example, consider the Chopin Prelude no. 19 in E flat – a large hand would mean less leaping within many of the fast triplets, so greater accuracy and improved legato line. For me, I could never seem to play this piece without a wrong note somewhere. This conclusion is consistent with the survey findings in that those with hand spans close to the female average also reported significant improvements.
The effect on skills like octave playing and large chords is more or less what I expected. But there are other parts of repertoire that are considerably easier that I didn’t expect – I’ll mention some examples shortly. Previously these rolled chords were impossible to get to – playing octaves on the edge means a very awkward twisted hand/arm position when the right hand moves down to the bass.
Broken octaves are possible for a small hand but speed is always reduced and the amount of practice needed for accuracy is significant. Also in this example, having to omit the bottom notes of some RH chords meant extra changes of hand position.
Speed is expected here – and that is now possible with the 7/8, and the feeling of power is greater. Broken chord passages are common in Beethoven – there are much more difficult examples in Rage over a Lost Penny.
In Mozart (compared with Chopin, Debussy for example) you are less able to get away with using the sustaining pedal to mask notes lifted early, so need to hold the bottom note – on the conventional keyboard I sometimes feel a slight unevenness of rhythm, particularly when moving out of one of these bars to a separate chord – and tone control between the different voices is harder to achieve.
Being able to play a 9 th is important in these situations.
I didn’t expect to feel such an obvious difference with these sorts of passages. More compact hand is the key.
Another example – normally I need to practise this variation quite intensively before a performance to ensure good technique and accuracy…on the normal keyboard, for me there is significant amount of right hand movement up and down the keyboard. I was amazed when I played it on the 7/8 a few weeks ago after a break of 3 months or more - it felt so easy and there were no mistakes! Now having looked at the fingering, I find that I no longer need to use the thumb on the third note in each group of demi-semi quavers, but can use the 2 nd finger as marked. This means a lot less hand movement and a less awkward feeling!
On the conventional keyboard, note changes of hand position in the LH, strange fingering such as successive 5ths; second over thumb in bar 6 (!); use of alternating hands in upward RH passages. The difficulty of this passage is increased when the RH is stressing out playing the octave chords at the same time. On the 7/8 some hand position changes will still be necessary but the task will be much easier…
Being able to hold down octaves and use better fingering in lower voice – reduced use of successive thumbs; hence better legato line and tone control is the result.
The dramatic difference here was unexpected. Previously each hand separately was ok but somehow it felt insecure with both hands together and up to speed. Reduced distance to roll LH chords makes them feel much easier – in combination with fast right hand and 2-5 stretches which are slightly uncomfortable on the conventional keyboard.
Being able to use the 2nd finger (on 7/8) rather than the thumb totally changes the feel of much of this etude – less hand movement, stretching and tension – better legato and increased speed is the result! The second excerpt is the start of a 2-line section ¾ of the way through – always quite difficult for me. On the conventional keyboard, I used to feel some pain in the right lower forearm (underneath) and although I worked very hard on technique here, I could not eliminate this pain and had to restrict the speed of the etude to 80 crotchet beats per minute (note the LH octaves earlier in the piece also meant the speed could not be any higher). I think that the basic problem here is there are many 8ths and 9ths in these two lines – intervals I can’t play comfortably – and there is no chance to rest. The excessive hand movement, mini-leaps and constant stretching means it is very hard or impossible to get a proper ‘release’ after each note when played up to speed.
Robin Boyle (my co-author) hopes to gather data on hand size among about 1000 students at Deakin University over the next 12 months – opportunity to explore ethnic differences, given large proportion of international students.
From a range of health and musical perspectives, the availability of reduced-size keyboards would offer potentially significant benefits for many pianists. This is not only for females – about 20% of customers for smaller keyboards are males. Most of the research has focused on pain and injury – identifying hand size as a risk factor. The latest research in the US using smaller keyboards is also tending to focus on the pain/injury side. The survey we conducted supports the published accounts of others, pointing to many musical and technical benefits, and expanded repertoire choice for pianists who use reduced-size keyboards. Before reduced-size keyboard were available – not practicable to determine impact of hand size on qualitative aspects of piano playing, i.e. musical and technical issues which all contribute to performance excellence. These keyboards open up many avenues of research possibilities.
Relevant websites are included at the end of this powerpoint.
Hand Size and the Piano
Presenter: Rhonda Boyle
Co-author: Robin Boyle
APPCA July 2009
‘There are two great secrets in the world of
piano playing. The first is how much easier the
instrument is to play with larger hands and the
second is how impossible it can be with smaller
‘If one can divide the world into roughly two
constituencies; a smaller half and a larger half,
one can see that the larger half never really
knows what the difficulties of their small-handed
counterparts are, and the smaller half never really
finds out how much easier all the difficulties are
with larger hands.’
Christopher Donison 1998
Hand span v maximum stretch on white keys
Name Gender Total hand 2-5 finger Hand ratio [2-5 Maximum interval played
span (inches) span (inches) span/total span]
Rhonda F 7.00 4.70 0.67 8 - on edge, not comfortable
Pat S F 7.40 6.00 0.81 8 - comfortable
Pat M F 7.60 6.00 0.79 9 - on edge
Janet F 7.60 6.00 0.79 9 - on edge
Hiroko F 7.60 6.30 0.83 9 - on edge
Deborah F 8.00 6.10 0.76 9 - on edge
Barbara F 8.00 6.70 0.84 9 - on edge
Jennifer F 8.10 6.80 0.84 9 - on edge
Stephen M 8.20 6.10 0.74 9 - barely comfortable, 10 - on edge
Darryl M 8.20 6.60 0.80 9 - barely comfortable
Maire F 8.40 6.20 0.74 9 - comfortable, 10 - on edge
Mickey M 8.50 6.10 0.72 9 - comfortable, 10 - on edge
Louise F 8.80 7.00 0.80 10 - on edge
Lester M 8.80 7.20 0.82 10 - on edge
David M 8.90 7.50 0.84 10 - on edge
Max M 9.00 6.40 0.71 10 - on edge
Ray M 9.00 7.40 0.82 10 - on edge
Robert M 9.20 7.30 0.79 10 - on edge
Rohan M 9.50 7.00 0.74 10 - comfortable, 11 - on edge
‘You need to allow yourself at least a couple of days
with a DS keyboard to begin the journey of discovery
of exactly what it is that you have been missing, and
the unnecessary obstacles you have been facing all of
Trust me when I tell you that it is lot more profound
that merely "stretching" a distance between any 2
….email from Christopher Donison, 31 Dec 2006
New research using reduced-size keyboards
Small-handed pianists defined as having a 1-5
span of 8 inches or less – approximately 50%
of female pianists
Wristen et al – used electromyography with
small-handed pianists - indicated greater
comfort as well as accuracy on the 7/8
keyboard – expert assessments agreed with
Yoshimura & Chesky – current research using
motion cameras and sensors to capture
pianists’ movements – computer animation
measures speed, force and velocity of each
key-stroke – hand size linked to pain
Reduced-size keyboards: Personal accounts
Observations by professional pianists/academics in
North America, including Carol Leone (Texas) and
Christopher Donison (British Columbia), include:
Ease of adjustment and swapping between
Reduced hand position changes and more logical
Less rolling of chords and pedalling to mask notes
Chords, octaves much more ‘under the hand’ – less
Reduced-size keyboards: Personal accounts
Faster learning – especially for technically difficult
Improved legato and musical line; legato octaves
Improved voicing of chords and balance
Easier memorisation and sight-reading
More time to spend on musicality rather than getting
Survey of players of reduced-size keyboards
Questionnaire survey by email – early 2009
Adult pianists who play a 7/8 or 15/16
Aim was to gather information about their
Focus on musical and technical benefits, in
addition to relief from pain and injury
14 responses received
Results published in this paper
Survey of players of reduced-size keyboards
All respondents were female, many were piano
teachers, academics, some professional performers
Hand spans (1-5) – from 7.1 to 7.9 inches
50% had significantly increased their practice time
Most adjusted to the reduced size within hours
Most could adapt a piece learnt on the conventional
keyboard within a day or one practice session
Most reported positive feedback from others
13 reported previous pain and/or injury – most
problems had disappeared
Most had increased their repertoire – generally
incorporating more Romantic works
Respondents rated improvement for 22 skills as:
‘Negative’, ‘Nil’, ‘Slight’, ‘Considerable’ & ‘Dramatic’
Survey results – Skills surveyed
Respondents were surveyed on 22 pianistic skills:
Sight-reading Double thirds
Time to learn new repertoire Double sixths
Scale passages Trills & similar ornaments
Legato playing Ease of memorisation
Holding down notes as Accuracy
intended - not releasing Overall feeling of security
early/masking with pedal Time taken to master
Leaps technically difficult passages
Fast passages of octaves or Feeling of power where
large chords needed
Broken octaves General tone quality
Broken chords/arpeggios Balance
Changes of hand position Evenness of rhythm and
Awkward/non-ideal fingering tone
Survey results – Improvements reported
All respondents rated degree of improvement as
‘Considerable’ or ‘Dramatic’ for:-
– Ability to hold down notes as intended
– Feeling of power where needed
13 out of 14 rated degree of improvement as
‘Considerable’ or ‘Dramatic’ for :-
– Fast passages of octaves or large chords
– Time taken to master technically difficult passages
Wide variation in responses for some skills
Level of improvement was similar regardless of hand
size (no relationship found between hand size and the
number of ‘considerable’ or ‘dramatic’ improvements)
Survey examples of improvement in skills
Trills and similar ornaments Broken octaves
Negative Nil Slight Considerable Dramatic Negative Nil Slight Considerable Dramatic
Evenness of rhythm and tone Overall feeling of security
Negative Nil Slight Considerable Dramatic Negative Nil Slight Considerable Dramatic
Survey – Other feedback
Overall benefits reported –
– ability to play larger repertoire
– octave passages and large chords
– performance excellence
– Relief from pain, tension and stretching
‘My small hand size is no longer a handicap or the main criterion in
choosing a piece of music to play.’
‘For me, the most enjoyable aspect of playing on the reduced-size
keyboard is how it felt: finally I was playing on a piano that was the
right size for me. It was if I had been trying to walk around in
shoes that were a size too big and then at last I got a pair that was
the right size.’
Disadvantages of smaller keyboards – mostly practical
issues, such as playing elsewhere