Standard pianos a big problem for musicians with small hands

Seventeen years ago, SMU became the first major university in the U.S. to incorporate smaller keyboards into its music program for people with small hands.

By Marc Ramirez
Breaking News Reporter

Eliana Yi dreamed of pursuing piano performance in college, nevermind that her fingers could barely reach the length of an octave. Unable to fully play many works by Romantic-era composers including Beethoven and Brahms, she tried anyway — and in her determination to spend hours practicing one notoriously "stretchy" Chopin concerto, wound up injuring herself.

Aware of the limitations of her short hand span, competitions were even worse for Yi.

"I would just go to pieces," the Southern Methodist University junior recalled. "There were just too many octaves. I remember asking one piano teacher, `Am I just going to play Bach and Mozart for the rest of my life?'"

The efforts of SMU keyboard studies chair Carol Leone are changing all that: Seventeen years ago, the school became the first major university in the U.S. to incorporate smaller keyboards into its music program, leveling the playing field for Yi and other piano majors.

The first time Yi, 21, tried one of the smaller keyboards, "I remember being really excited, because my hands could actually reach and play all the right notes," she said. Ever since, "I haven't had a single injury, and I can practice as long as I want."

For decades, few questioned the size of the conventional piano. If someone's thumb-to-pinky reach was less than 8.5 inches — the distance considered ideal to comfortably play an octave — well, that's just how it was.

Those caught shorthanded are mostly women, with spans an inch shorter than men, on average. An Australian study found that in addition to nearly a quarter of Caucasian men, more than 80 percent of Caucasian women had hand spans too small; the disproportion was even greater for Asians.

For those with small hand spans, it's difficult, if not impossible, to properly play many works of Beethoven and Brahms; the works of Rachmaninoff are particularly daunting. Those who attempt "stretchy" passages either get used to omitting notes or risk tendon injury with repeated play.

"Accumulating evidence demonstrates that pianists in general are locked in a one-size-fits-all world of profound discrimination," wrote David Steinbuhler on the website of Pennsylvania-based Steinbuhler & Co., which produces the smaller keyboards used at SMU.


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