Standard piano keys are too wide for too many. But alternatively sized keyboards are on the way.

May 20, 2021

The piano is the instrument most preferred by music students. It is often the instrument of their dreams: playing beautiful music perfectly and displaying extraordinary pianistic athleticism. However, the conventional keyboard – with its fixed key width – is unsuitable for many, dooming them to a future of unmet hopes. We can’t change our hands but we can change the keyboard!

Prior to the 1880s, pianos with different sized keys were available, and pianists would have been used to moving between them. With the aim of increasing sales, the major manufacturers built large concert halls for performances by the great male virtuosos, like Liszt. But those halls required bigger sounds, and the design and mechanics of the new pianos required wider keys. The keyboard that eventuated thus suited an extreme – the largest of hands. Mass production of both grand and upright pianos consolidated a ‘standard’ key size that is too big for most pianists.

It took more than 100 years for serious questioning of this situation and, since the 1990s, there has been increasing interest in, and agitation for, providing keyboards that suit more of the piano playing population. Now, a movement advocating narrower key options is providing hope.

The International Stretto Piano Festival, is an example of this steady progress. Running online in the week starting May 15, it is unique in that all 17 performers, from six countries (including two from Sydney) will perform on pianos with keys narrower than the conventional keyboard.

The international movement for change, known as PASK (Pianists for Alternatively Sized Keyboards), is led by performers, teachers, technicians and researchers in Australia, North America and Europe. The aim of the movement, which I coordinate from Melbourne, is for narrower keyboard sizes to be accepted as alternatives to the conventional keyboard and to become widely available in new acoustic pianos and digital keyboards. PASK is now a network of thousands across all continents.

I became involved when in 2009, I acquired a DS5.5 keyboard (with 5.5 inch octave compared to the normal 6.5 inch octave), the first outside America. It replaces the existing keyboard in my grand piano. I was soon playing pieces I had given up on years earlier or never attempted. It was a revelation!

Following is a summary of the key issues of having a ‘one size fits all’ keyboard and progress in making other sizes available.

Pianists’ hand span data

If someone at full stretch can only reach 7 notes, maybe 8 (an octave), on the standard keyboard it is a physical impossibility for them to reach ten notes (a 10th). It is stating the obvious that there is huge variation in practically all human characteristics, including across gender, age groups and ethnic backgrounds. Height is an obvious one. Hand size is another.

Pianists are taught work-arounds – changing fingering, leaving out notes, rolling chords. They might work in some situations, but the musical integrity of a piece is often compromised and learning times are longer. Large hand spans mean the fingers are comfortably over more notes at the same time, rather than straining or leaping between them. It means more power, speed and accuracy, and less pain. You can test the change in strength and comfort by pressing your fingertips into a desk top, first with them forming a bridge with the wrist raised, then with them stretched out flat.

An analysis of hand span statistics and how hand span relates to piano playing, reported in peer-reviewed studies, showed that a large majority (about 86%) of adult women and a sizable minority (about 25%) of men have hand spans that are ‘too small’ for the conventional piano keyboard. In other words, too small to be able to perform all the repertoire they would like to, without pain, and to the best of their musical ability. Those of Asian ethnicity have smaller hands than Caucasians.

Of course, children generally have smaller hand than adults, but some have quite large hands. The data show that many adult females have hands smaller than most teenage boys. The smallest hand span in our study – an adult female – was only 6.4 inches (16.3 cm). This is 4.4 inches (11.2 cm) smaller than the largest hand span of 10.8 inches (27.4 cm) belonging to an adult male international performer. He could reach five more white notes than her.

Studies show that the average hand span of adult male pianists is around 8.9 inches (22.6 cm), one inch (2.5 cm) larger than that of females with an average of 7.9 (20 cm) inches. This equates to reaching more than one extra white key and has significant implications for piano playing. The benchmark for comfortable playing across a wide range of repertoire is 8.5 inches (21.6 cm).

Women and small-handed male pianists are twice as likely to suffer injury from piano playing. Their repertoire is severely curtailed, often ruling them out of playing many of the great piano works of the 19th century at a high level. A career as a topflight performer is unlikely without the best of Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninoff in your program.

For string players, it is taken for granted that children should learn on instruments smaller than the full size. Adult string players also have a choice of size to suit their physical characteristics. Tennis players have different size racquets to choose from! Pianists though, all have to run in the same size shoes.

It is becoming possible for pianists to have an instrument that suits their hands

On the conventional ‘one size-fits-all’ keyboard, an octave span is 6.5 inches. However, in recent decades – via small manufacturers – custom-made piano keyboards with narrower keys have increasingly become available.

In particular, David Steinbuhler and Chris Donison started producing retrofit keyboards with narrower keys for acoustic (grand and upright) pianos in the US during the 1990s. Their work eventually led to the production of two alternative keyboard sizes, known as DS6.0 (6.0 inch octave) and the DS5.5 (5.5 inch octave). They found that these two options, together with the conventional 6.5 inch octave keyboard, cater to almost all adult hand span sizes. And there is a an even smaller option mainly suitable for small children, the DS5.1 (5.1 inch octave).

Their keyboards are fitted into existing pianos – the standard keyboard is removed and the narrower keyboard slotted in. The rest of the piano – the strings, casing and sound – are unaffected.

Other manufacturers in Europe and elsewhere also make retrofit keyboards. The alternative-sized actions with keyboards are easily changed in a grand piano in about five minutes, making it possible for the top concert halls around the world to have two extra interchangeable keyboards available for one concert grand piano. By definition, though, custom-made retrofitting is a high-cost option.

For the big manufacturers of acoustic pianos there is an enormous market for models with narrower keys and interchangeable keyboards. While there are signs of recognising the need, change is best described as sluggish.

The exciting news comes from companies working on digital options; it could be that these electronic keyboards are the game-changer. With digitals there is much greater flexibility in producing narrower key sizes and they are becoming more sophisticated with regard to touch and tone quality. There are two digital keyboards with narrower keys currently under development by small companies in America and Europe.

Digital keyboards with narrower keys open options beyond classical pianism, into pop and jazz. And they will provide the perfect option for growing children. Students will learn much faster on a keyboard that fits their hands, achieve their goals sooner compared to struggling on their parent’s grand or upright, and stay motivated. They can upgrade to different sizes as they grow. Digitals offer a cost-effective option for teachers to add to their studios.

For a musical interlude, check this short video which explains the advantages of narrower keys.

The pianist in that video is Professor Carol Leone, from Southern Methodist University, Dallas, playing on a Steinway D refitted with a DS5.5 keyboard. Carol, along with David Steinbuhler in Pennsylvania, Erica Booker in Sydney and myself, is one of the main trailblazers behind the PASK movement.

Progress includes an international piano competition (Dallas IPC) that has provided DS6.0 and DS5.5 keyboards to contestants on request. Now we have the current Stretto festival, where every pianist plays on narrower keys. Importantly, the Steinbuhler business has been converted to the DS Standard Foundation which is lending keyboards to music schools around the world. A DS6.0 keyboard is now at the Australian National Academy of Music in Melbourne.

There is still a way to go

The concert stage is dominated by male performers but one has to wonder, are they the best because of their musicality or do they rise to the top because they can perform ‘stretchy’ repertoire so much more easily?

Piano competitions are almost always won by males. A current example is the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels, where there were 10 women out of a total of 58 in the first round, progressing to just one woman out of 12 semi-finalists.

Apart from piano manufacturers there is still much convincing to be done. Many in the ‘piano world’ are locked into a culture of misinformation, pseudo-science and myths handed down through generations of teachers and pianists. Stubbornness and ignorance are roadblocks, including the common belief that it is not possible to easily switch between keyboard sizes, insisting that narrower keys must mean an inferior sound even though the rest of the piano is unchanged, or rejecting that ergonomics has a part to play and insisting that one size is fine for everyone.

Pianists and teachers may point to famous pianists who supposedly had ‘small’ hands, but the indications are that while they might have had hands smaller than top male performers, they actually had large hands compared to most women.  It is like a six-foot (1.83 metre) basketball player complaining he is short!

Those with small hands may rationalise the situation by saying they enjoy the challenge. But small-handed pianists have to spend many, many, more hours on practice than their large-handed counterparts and risk pain and injury along the way. We note that some well-known pianists have had pianos custom made for them, with narrower keys, and those pianos travel with them.

Piano teachers may callously encourage their students to practice harder, not understanding that their hand size precludes them from reasonable progress with the works they want to play. Too many students drop out due to lack of advancement given the hard work entailed, along with pain and injury.

There are practical impediments to examination boards providing narrow key options for students. Change will only come when there are inexpensive options available. The pandemic has had a silver lining in that many exam boards now allow students to submit videos.

Leading concert venues need to support the movement, especially to reveal female pianists who give fabulous performances when they have a keyboard that suits them.

Pianists often fear, with some justification, that playing on a different sized keyboard may damage their career prospects. Performers with smaller hand spans have a strong incentive to ‘prove’ that they do not need a different keyboard, yet their performance and health would improve immensely with a keyboard that fits them better.

Professor Leone often sees many talented pianists try a piano that better fits their hands and witnesses how they suddenly realise that the problem has not been their lack of practice or talent, but an ill-fitting keyboard! They feel as if a cruel trick has been played on them and can become emotional and even angry when they understand the implications. They then understand how much time they have wasted focusing on technical challenges which disappear when they play a keyboard that suits, how everything is so much easier, pain disappears, and how they can start focusing on the music itself. They have often been told by previous teachers that they just need to practice harder, adopt certain ‘tricks or work-arounds’ for small hands, and even put up with the pain if they want to advance.

I finish with a quote from a woman who has acquired a DS5.5 keyboard:

‘This is such a profound, life-changing journey. Now that I am in the autumn of my years, I am trying not to dwell on the years and hundreds of hours wasted trying to do things that are physically impossible for me to do! And though some of my teachers called me “gifted,” no one was honest or kind enough to tell me the truth, so I just kept pounding away. One of the first things with my new 5.5 was to work out the gnarly 2-measure passage in the Rach op 3/2. After hundreds of hours of drills (on the conventional keyboard) – it took about 20 minutes to master it (on the DS5.5). The wasted effort nearly makes me angry…I now understand…the self-deception telling me I needed more discipline and practice.’

If you wish to see some performances in The International Stretto Piano Festival, you may choose from a wide range of ticket prices for each concert. They remain accessible online during and after the festival.

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