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Pedagogy Forum

This issue continues from the January 2005 Newsletter the topic of small-handed pianists.


One of the frustrations of teaching piano is to have a musically talented student with hands that cannot reach an octave easily, particularly as they move into more advanced repertoire. In a recent conversation with a bright and talented young adult, I inquired as to why she had not chose music as a career option since she was playing advanced repertoire by Rachmaninoff, Bartok, Brahms and Haydn so well. Her reply was that when she had discussed this with a former teacher, the instructor had told her to "forget it because your hands are too small"! Our job as teachers is to find solutions to student problems, whether they are musical, technical or physical and we should use all our skills to ensure that the student's progress will continue with as few difficulties as possible, even if they have been born with some limiting physical problems!!

This month's Forum is an excerpt from the Autumn 2002 Keyboard Companion (reprinted with permission) by Lora Deahl and Brenda Wristen. In it the authors discuss some of the problems and make some helpful suggestions to alleviate the stress of these problems such as what motion principles are most important when playing the piano and choosing repertoire for students with small hands. The following is taken from the section on helping the student technically "reinterpret" the score:

1. Return the hand to anatomic neutral (its natural compact position) as soon and as frequently as possible. We need to remember that the span of anatomic neutral in a small-handed player might be as small as the interval of a 4th or 5th. We also need to watch our students' hands closely for signs of stretch or stress, and work to minimize stretches in the hand.

2. Edit the score if necessary to eliminate stretches. Judiciously eliminate note doublings, reduce 10ths to 3rds, rewrite notes in a different octave, or redistribute notes between the hands.

3. Choose repertoire carefully. This is necessary for the physical benefit of the student and to maintain the integrity of the music. In this way, rewriting can be kept to a minimum.

4. Re-finger passages to eliminate stretch where possible. For example, use 1-3 instead of 1-2 or 1-5 instead of 1-4. Favor the stronger finger (1,3,5); don't be afraid of using thumbs on the black keys. Re-finger arpeggiated passages using smaller hand spans even if this necessitates more frequent hand shifts.

5. Look for situations where notes can be released early or played staccato; for example the lower notes of big chords or inner parts in a contrapuntal texture. Early release allows the hand to return to its preferred compact position.

6. Use the pedal to make legato connections between octaves, chords, or notes of a wide-spread melody.

7. When playing fortissimo, remember that volume is a product of force AND speed. Instead of crashing down into the keys with a harsh sound, recommend increasing the speed of key depression (not to be confused with tempo, which should remain the same). Emphasize that dynamics are continuums, not absolute values, and will vary from one player and from one piece to the next.

8. Do not prescribe exercises which stretch or stress the hand as these often lead to serious injury.

9. Consider purchasing a reduced-size keyboard manufactured with a 5-1/2 inch to 6 inch octave instead of a standard 6-1/2 inch octave.

Mary Tickner, Coordinator