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 hands.
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 counter-parts are, and the smaller half never really finds out how much easier all the difficulties are with larger hands. This is because small-handed people never wake up the next morning with larger hands, no matter how hard they may pray for that to happen, and the larger handed people have never experienced the difficulties of the smaller-handed people. Their hands were already big enough long before they were attempting repertoire that was challenging enough to betray the secret."
Beginning in the 1970's while studying piano at the Victoria Conservatory of Music in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, and being very aware of the difficulties associated with smaller hands, I had the revelation that it was not that the hands were too small but that the keys were too big. That began a long journey of trying to convince as many people in the piano world as I could, that not only was this true, but that something could be done about it, namely, the adoption of a second universal standard size that would bring about the emancipation of opportunity for the level of success at the piano for the smaller half of the world, which is currently enjoyed by the larger half of the world. This is a debate that will really provoke strong opinions, and it is my assertion that this is because we have invested so much in the "Emperor's clothes story" that one size is suffient for all, that too many assumptions have to be re-evaluated to come to this new awareness.
The revelation for the idea came to me as I was practicing a Chopin ballade in the early 1970's. After having thought for so long that my hands were too small for the task, it occurred to me that maybe it was the other way around---that the keyboard was too big. One can only make this kind of leap in understanding if one is able to imagine that the truth we have been presented with is perhaps false, or at least not complete. I call this flip logic. You must assume that everything that is supposed to be true is false--and then see what you come up with. In the case of the piano--if you grew up practicing all your life---and the only thing you have ever seen is a piano with the standard size keyboard---then you come to believe that it could not be any other way. When I talked to most people about my idea before I had it built, they thought it was not possible. There was no logical reason for their thinking-----it just was counter to a very powerful reality that had always presented itself to them as being only one way and unchanging.
The following articles will provide more on the invention and the history of this revolution.
"Piano & Keyboard Magazine", July/August 1998
T H E I N S T R U M E N T
Try this Keyboard, You'll Like It.
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 hands. 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 counter-parts are, and the smaller half never really finds out how much easier all the difficulties are with larger hands. This is because small-handed people never wake up the next morning with larger hands, no matter how hard they may pray for that to happen, and the larger handed people have never experienced the difficulties of the smaller-handed people. Their hands were already big enough long before they were attempting repertoire that was challenging enough to betray the secret.
The rest of the article is below with some alterations and additions--but it is substantially the same. The bulk of it has been used in articles in both The Piano Technicians Journal (July 1998) and Medical Problems of Performing Artists (September 2000)
The fact that the smaller half is foreclosed from ever knowing what it is like to have larger hands has enabled the perpetuation of the myth that hand-size does not matter. It is simply an idiotic assertion that hand-size is not important and every lay-person knows it. A maternity ward nurse on seeing a new born with large baby-hands will exclaim, "maybe he will be a concert pianist!" How is it that the public can know something so completely well and yet within such a specialised and highly-trained field full of brilliant people, there can continue to be people who deny that which is so obvious? The answer is that they are in a cult.
The cult in question is the piano culture. What a cult does is place boundaries beyond which persons in the cult are not permitted to think. Thinking "outside the box" is not encouraged in a cult. The opposite is the case. In the piano culture, we grow up and are presented with the piano as an instrument with an eighty-eight note keyboard that spans 48 inches and no matter where you go they are all the same. This is the known universe of pianos to a piano student. So when the student is experiencing difficulties that would be eliminated by a larger hand stretch, the idea of a smaller keyboard cannot emerge as a persistent cogent thought. Instead, they are told that all they need to do is to learn this technique or that technique. It is true that they must learn those techniques, but it is not true that they will then be able to play as well as they would with larger hands. The proof of this would be to ask one such player who can play , to play a given example on a keyboard which was 15% larger. Then and only then would it be revealed that the wonderful techniques they are in command of would not be sufficient to enable them to play at the same level if they had smaller hands.
The fact of the matter is that for practical reasons the one-size-fits all approach has prevailed in the piano-keyboard world for about a hundred years. But like other one-size-fits-all systems, we fitted the largest and not the average. If you had to make a wooden shoe that everyone in the world could put on, and all foot sizes were graded from 1 to 10, then you would have to make a 10. ( remember Cinderella!) This is precisely what happened with the piano. It emerged as a mass-produced item in the last century and the need for standardisation increased as travel outside one's own community increased. The manufacturers were not about to make an instrument that some European Caucasian male was going to sit down at and say. "these keys are too small". So what developed was a standard keyboard that was too small for virtually nobody but too large for many. In our species the female is on average 15% smaller than the male. I submit that the piano keyboard as it is today discriminates against women as a group for two simple reasons:
- Hand size does matter when it comes to playing the piano.
- Women are on average 15% smaller.
I have surveyed universities and found that female students out-number male students by 8 to 1. The January/February issue of Piano and Keyboard Magazine had a Steinway advertisement on the back page which listed past prize winners of the Van Cliburn competitions. Only one in 10 were female. One has to multiply those two numbers together to realize that a female is eighty times less likely as a man to win a competition that will launch a career. Is this because all the judges are biased? I submit that the answer is very simple and staring us in the face---that the piano keyboard is too big for most women, period. The type of hand that is necessary to compete on the instrument at this level is 80 times less common in women than men. This should not surprise anyone. Think of the Horowitz's and Rubenstein's of the world and try imagining what percentage of female students have hands like that.
There are those who will provide examples of women who have succeeded, as some kind of rebuttal to this self-evident truth. I have to remind people at this point that they are talking about something they have not experienced. I, (and small but growing numbers of others on the planet) have actually experienced getting larger hands. Although that sounds impossible it was achieved by creating a 7/8 keyboard for my Steinway concert grand. I then began the great discovery of what it feels like to play the piano with larger hands. Of all the types of touches and techniques we talk about in piano-studies, all of them, and I stress all of them, are easier by a factor of a hundred. Everything is hundreds of times easier. And this is the great secret I would have never known as long as I lived if I had not had the 7/8 keyboard made for me. Getting that keyboard made became an obsession for me after the idea came to me while practising the coda of the G minor Chopin ballade for about the thousandth time. I was staring at the keyboard and looking at my hands and realising how they did not look right in comparison to the keyboard to accomplish the task. (I cannot stretch a sixth between the index finger and little finger in the right hand). It was then that I realized that my hands would never be larger but that the keyboard could be smaller! After I got the keyboard made and fitted to the piano I began an epiphany of discovery. It is not just about playing "stretchy' repertoire or large chords. Here is a list:
- Finally I could use the right fingerings. Every advanced student knows how important fingerings are. Broken chord formations end up being one hand position instead of two. The sensation of what it feels like to play with the proper fingering is easier to remember, more reliable in terms of accuracy, less painful and ultimately sounds better! That is because the fingers that must bring out specific pitches in concerted sounds are aligned more directly over the key. The whole hand shape is less stretched out and so power can be directed down into the key.
- Wide sweeping left hand arpeggiated figures so prevalent in Chopin become not only possible but one gets to actually get on with the business of cultivating the right sound rather than practising with endlessly futility over and over the same passage. Also the larger the sweep becomes the greater the difference is. On a 7/8 keyboard a 2 1/2 octave sweep is 2 and 1/2 normal key-widths smaller. That is about 2 1/2 inches! When the smaller-handed player is attempting a sweep like this the hand has to be very lose and is practically flung from top to bottom to cover the distance in time. Landing in the right place is the great achievement. With a larger hand landing in the right place is so easy that the force with which you land there now is an option! Eureka. Those huge washes of sound can now be controlled and manipulated. What enjoyment to actually be able to play the left hand of the F minor ballad or the B minor sonata and be in control of the sound rather than in the pain and agony of unfulfilled musical expression.
- Power. A small handed person on a 7/8 keyboard will sound like a larger person. End of story. This assumes that the player has good technique of course. All tasks that are repetitive are now easier. The distance to travel is now proportionate to the size of the hand. Most of piano technique is about allowing the hand to be in its natural position as much of the time as possible. If the hand has to stretch itself into contortions like a pretzel for every single task one gets tired a lot faster. Alternatively when the hand, in its natural relaxed position, is already in the position where it needs to be, the percentage of the time that the muscles are engaged is reduced significantly and the ability for the muscles to rest is increased. Therefore power and stamina are increased.
- Leapy things are easier to do accurately and at a higher speed. Makes sense.
- Balance. All of the balancing tasks are easier. Getting the right amount of tone out of the lead melody line in the right hand (or any internal line for that matter) is possible and enjoyable with a larger hand (or the appropriate keyboard).
- I don't believe there is a concert pianist alive who is forced to play octaves with the little finger on every successive octave. Being able to walk (legato finger) octaves with a 3,4,5 fingering not only provides for bel canto playing but also is necessary for the speed and accuracy of the famous octave passages of the rep. (see 2 fingerings.)
So it is obvious that the smaller-handed pianists that have succeeded have not had the difficulty to the extent that it stopped them. But among those that have succeeded some have had to limit repertoire. But most importantly, their difficulties were not severe enough to stop them--but what about all those whom it did stop? And it does. The proof is in the numbers: 80 to 1.
My entire piano education was plagued by my small-hand size, and although I did well playing the piano literature I was expected to play in grade school, at the university level I had to face head-on the more advanced repertoire. This is I believe what happens to a lot of female pianists and it reminds me of what happened to my hockey career. In grade four to seven I was a high goal-scorer but all of sudden when the kids got bigger around grade nine I had to quit because my desire to survive in one piece began to exceed my desire and ability
to score goals.
I realize now, on looking back that most of the time I spent practising the piano was spent on trying to overcome difficulties because of my hand-size. Part of the myth is that the people that can play difficult music easily are some how smarter or more brilliant. It is true that the great players are brilliant and smart but it is also true that the potential musical brilliance of the smaller-handed population of pianists is not permitted to blossom. If one is spending ninety percent of the time trying to overcome hand-size limitation,then one is really at a disadvantage.
After making my 7/8 keyboard I had the idea that the world should adopt a second official keyboard size that would be universally available for study, performance , and competition. But I became worried that not all pianos could be converted. In the summer of 1993 a bed and breakfast guest of ours in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario where I lived and worked as Music Director at the Shaw Festival, became interested in my idea. His name was David Steinbuhler and I explained to him that the world needed this revolution and that even if all the manufacturers and players decided it was a good idea, there would need to be an entity to spear-head the drive and to be able to convert any piano. This would require a sophisticated a computer program to cut the keys. That way a data base could be developed that would be the basis of a replacement keyboard manufacturing entity. He said he could write that program. A few months later he called me and said he was still thinking about the idea. Part of what inspired him was the powerful notion of how huge a contribution this could be to the world of music and the degree to which it could help to emancipate the disenfranchised. He also said he was an inventor and that one of the things an inventor looks for is something that hasn't changed in over a hundred years. The piano is just such a candidate. Times have changed but the piano hasn't. Women couldn't even vote a hundred years ago. Also, to both of us the idea resonated with the knowledge that this idea was deeply correct and that it was an idea whose time had finally come.
We decided to work together and some accomplishments are:
In closing I must say that my great desire is for the small-handed pianists of the world to experience as I have the great joy of playing the piano without pain when the struggle of over-coming the limitations imposed by hand-size is gone. And I want the world to know this: Do you remember when you would watch some of the great masters playing passages that you thought were impossible, and yet it looked so easy for them? Well , it was easy for them. In my lectures I have been giving at universities I say one statement that causes a shock of awareness that allows people to be able to see this issue as I do. I pick from the audience a female pianist who agrees that she has an average female hand-- not really small and not unusually large for a female.
I then take her hand and show it to the class and say, "If Vladimir Horowitz had been born with this hand, you would have never heard of him."
Responses in the letters section on the following issue of Piano and Keyboard Magazine:
L E T T E R S
|"Small Hands? Try This Keyboard,
You'll Like it" ( July/August 1998 ) was
most interesting. I have had the same
thoughts many times, usually while
trying Rachmaninoff, Liszt, or the
"stretchier Chopin etudes. In fact, it was
when learning a set of the Rachmaninoff
Preludes that I developed a case of De
Quervain's tendinitis in my right thumb,
and eventually had to have surgical
repair. That was successful, but I am
more circumspect with my Rachmaninoff
these days. I cannot be certain of a
cause-and-effect relationship, but the
coincidence is there.
questions. If you practice on a 7/8
keyboard, what happens when you play
on a "normal" piano? Do you easily
make the adjustment to different
distances between the keys, or is there a
problem? I know violin/viola players
who make such an adjustment between
instruments without trouble. Or should
you have two pianos—one for personal
enjoyment, and one to develop and
practice a public repertoire?
octave is six and a half inches. What is
the distance on the 7/8 keyboard? What is
the new distance for a tenth? A sixth?
are known to prefer a particular
action—for example, Steinway, Renner,
and so on. Does having a new keyboard
mean having a new action, or can the
new keyboard be fitted to the old action?
There are quality considerations
John R. Vasko, Jr., M.D.
Christopher Donison's interesting article,
"Small Hands..." is almost overshadowed
by his enthusiasm to promote his own
invention. While it is true that pianists
with small hands (and especially women
) might find it easier to play reduced-
sized keys, his thesis that many mute,
inglorious pianists are unknown because
they can't play regular pianos is made
most absurd by his concluding example:
"If Vladimir Horowitz had been born
with this [tiny] hand, you would never have heard of him."
Admittedly, in Josef Hoffman's later
years Steinway "shaved" ten percent of its normal keyboard
for this petite pianist, but I doubt he had much difficulty
with the standard issue. Donison seems to be saying that
folks with diminished digits cannot succeed without using
his DS Standard keyboard.
My vision is for a
world with two standard sizes. But, yes,
it is possible to play both sizes. I do. I
cannot play much of the repertoire on the
larger size, but I can play any repertoire
better on the smaller size. On the smaller
keyboard, an octave is
5 1/2", a sixth is 4", and a tenth is 7 1/4"
(approximately), The replacement
keyboard does not alter the action; it
integrates with it.
I have not
done any statistical correlation relative
to repetitive strain injuries. This might
be a fascinating research project for a
doctor with an interest in keyboard
I make no
apologies for my enthusiasm—but
it is for the liberation of the
disenfranchised. I am saying that the
smaller half of the world is not
succeeding with only the one larger size.
(Not that they "cannot succeed" without
using the D.S. Standard Keyboard.")
Hoffman's piano was not significantly
reduced ( 1 /32 of an inch off each key,
for a total 3.38 - not 10-percent).
Without his stature as an artist, however,
it is doubtful that he would have
succeeded in persuading Steinway&Sons
to alter the instrument for him.
had larger-than-average hands for a
man. An average woman's hand is,
therefore, nearly 25 percent smaller.
Imagine if Horowitz had to play an
instrument that was 25 percent larger? I
am firm in my conviction that his life-
path would have been quite different.
A NEW MOVEMENT
/ Frustrated by an instrument that has evolved little in almost three centuries.
some keyboard aficionados hope to make the pianist's job easier and, at the
same time, less hazardous
Taking the pain out of the piano
BY PHIL NOVAK
special to the Globe & Mail Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
........ In Niagara-on-the-Lake Ont., Shaw Festival Music Director Christopher Donison has overcome the problem ........thanks to Canada's Christopher Donison
there could be a whole generation of piano players who won't have to stretch their hands quite as much. His keyboard is 41 inches in length rather than the normal 48 inches; it allows smaller hands to traverse "stretchy' passages. Indeed, since the DS is almost seven-eighths the size of a conventional keyboard, what would be a seven-note stretch is an octave on the smaller version. Donison notes that difference in size is roughly same as the difference in hand size between men and women. "And because a pianist won't have to stretch as far on the smaller keyboard, hand dexterity is improved and the risk of injury greatly reduced."
A composer and professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., Donison says his new keyboard is better suited to the average sized hand. According to Keith Allison, the Victoria based piano retailer who's selling the DS keyboard, "most of the world has been left at a disadvantage with the conventional sized keyboard, which was designed with the input of 19th century Caucasian male composers. This will at least provide a choice of two standards and even the playing field."
Donison began to think about revamping the keyboard 20 years ago, while studying music at the University of Victoria. He had just purchased a 1927 Steinway model D concert grand piano with a sterling history........
...........He did, and it was fitted into the Steinway.........
And companies such as Steinway could develop a new income stream by either selling pianos with smaller keyboards or offering retrofits to their existing models. The laws of evolution may have finally caught up with them, and it's time for the piano to play a whole new tune."
Click article for a readable version.