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Pianos for small hands
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An average-sized woman's hand playing an octave on a normal-sized piano
Woman's hand playing an octave on a 15/16th piano
Were pianos keys always as wide as they are today?
The width of piano keys became standardised in the late 1800s. Since then it has rarely been questioned. Pianists with small hands have spent many hours stretching their hands in order to try to reach notes on modern pianos and many have suffered hand pain and injury as a result.
Human hands vary in size – children compared with adults, males compared with females, as well as across ethnic groups. The current piano keyboard was designed to suit Caucasian male virtuosos late in the 19th century.
For more decades, women and men with smaller hands have been unable to play some of nthe major piano repertoire simply because their hands cannot reach the notes as written.
Evidence is growing that pianists who have small hands are more likely to suffer pain and injury than those with larger hands.
Conventional keyboards suit men with large hands. At international competition level, men are four times more likely to win piano competitions than women, whose hands are generally smaller in size.
Many pianists, mostly women and children are unable toreach their full musical potential because their hands are too small to be able to manage the technical requirements of playing on a conventional-sized piano.
Does playing the piano hurt your hands?
Tell me your story - has playing the piano been painful for your hands? Did you have to stop playing because of pain or injury?
Contribute to the conversation on pianos and hand size by posting your comment below.
Information from 'Piano keyboards – One size does not fit all!: Pianistic health for the next generation' by Erica Booker and Rhonda Boyle.
Classical pianos had narrower keys
Between 1784 and 1876, piano keyboards were smaller. This was also a time when much of the well-known piano music was written.
The current piano keyboard size became fixed around 1880 when the most famous pianists were also composers and had strong relationships with pinao manufacturers of the day.
Piano manufacturers have continued making a standard sized piano without considering the technical difficulties of male pianists with small hands, most female pianists and children.
There are exceptions, though. The great pianist Josef Hofmann used a reduced-size keyboard designed for him by Steinway & Sons in the early 20th century.
In recent years, USA piano manufacturer Steinbuhler began making piano keyboards with narrower keys (7/8th and 15/16th) to retrofit onto standard pianos.
In 2013, Kawai made a specially ordered grand piano with narrower keys for Australian pinaist and teacher Erica Booker.
Repertoire for small hands
Pianists with small hands (that is most children, women and a large percentage of men) are unable to play much of the Romantic piano repertoire such as music by LIszt, Chopin, Rachmaninov and other composers.
Research by Australian pianist Rhonda Boyle into the proportion of men and women who win major piano competitions indicates that men (whose hands have larger average sizes) are four times more likely to win international piano competitions than women contestants.
Hand spans vary by up to 11cm between the largest men's hands and the smallest women's hands.
The average hand span of an adult man is approximately one inch (2.5 cm) greater than that of an adult female.
This means that, at a piano, whilst a man can comfortably play an octave, a woman can comfortably play a seventh.
Woman's playing a seventh chord in a full size piano
The same woman's hand playing the prototype 15/16th Kawai piano
Hand span and the piano keyboard
Australian research has shown that the average woman's hand span is 8 inches (20.3cm) compared with the average man's hand span of 9 inches (22.9cm).
Women's hands are therefore, on average 15% (1/8) smaller than men's hands.
About 20 percent of women cannot play an octave comfortably on the conventional piano keyboard.
However, about 80 percent of men can play a 9th (one mote more than an octave) comfortably.
A woman with an average 8inch handspan who plays a 7/8 keyboard therefore can comfortably stretch one extra note, that is, she can play an octave as comfortably as a man can play an octave.
One of the world's greatest pianists. Vladmir Ashkenazi struggled to play repertoire requiring large chords because of the size of his hands.
In an interview with The Guardian in 2002, he told reporter Stuart Jeffries of his trials: "Look at this (holding up his right hand). That is why I don't play the piano so much any more. Can you see how swollen that middle finger is? Arthritis."
They talk of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto which Ashkenazi recorded: "Ah, I hate that work! It's not great, it's really a decorative work, but it demands such technical virtuosity. All those octaves, ah! Such pain! If I practised like a slave I could just about do it now. But I won't. It took me two years to practise the Rachmaninov Transcriptions."
Ashkenazi admits he does not play many concerts:"I play fewer concerts these days. I can't play more."
Is there a market for pianos with narrower keys?
If a piano manufacturer produced a piano with a 7/8 or 15/16 keyboard would you be a potential customer?
Playing a full-sized piano can cause pain and injury
In a preliminary study of piano-related injuries, Safaa Mophamed and Gilles Comeau found in their study reported in 2011 that hand pain was caused by the tissues and ligments of the hands being extended beyond their mechanical tolerance.
This is because practicing with the wrong technique over and over again can result in hot and inflamed muscles.
Gilles and Comeau studied nine participants ranging in age from 20 to 65 years who all played the piano regularly.
Of the nine people, three did not have any pain relating to playing the piano while six did feel pain related to piano-playing..
During the experiment, infrared images were taken of the hands, forearms and upper arms at rest.
The participants then played sight reading exercises at the piano for ten minutes.
A second set of infrared images of their hands, forearms and upper arms was then taken.
The participants then played scales for ten minutes and another set of images was taken.
The participants then played octave scales for five minutes ( or less if they became very tired) and another set of thermal images was taken.
Another two sets of thermal images were then taken at rest, one after 15 minutes and one after 30 minutes.
They used infrared imaging which showed that pianists hands which are stretched so much that the pianist feels pain, are hotter than larger pianists' hands which are not stretched to the pint where pain is caused.
The study by Mohamed and Comeau was presented to the 33rd annual International Conference of the IEEE EMBS in Boston, Massachusetts, USA in August/September 2011.