Comments by pianists using reduced-size keyboards (now usually referred to as ESPKs*) come from various sources including published papers by Dr Carol Leone (Southern Methodist University, Texas), Christopher Donison (Canadian pianist), Rhonda Boyle (Melbourne pianist) and results of a survey of 22 pianists in North America and Australia (Boyle, 2012).
You can read many personal stories from pianists and teachers by downloading the document: PASK Quotes and Stories below.
There is a great deal of consistency among these comments about the benefits of smaller keyboards. Actual hand size and shape, however, would most likely influence pianists’ reactions. For a pianist with extremely small hands, the expanded repertoire suddenly available and ability to play octaves and large chords far more comfortably, are among the most dramatic changes.
The results of the survey of 22 pianists (Boyle, 2012) are consistent with comments published by Leone, Donison and others. Respondents reported improvement with many of the 22 skills listed. They were most likely to report ‘dramatic’ or ‘considerable’ improvement with:-
- ability to hold down notes as intended
- feeling of power where needed
- fast passages of octaves or large chords
- time taken to master technically difficult passages.
Other skills for which more than 50% of those who responded rated the perceived degree of improvement as ‘considerable’ or ‘dramatic’ were:
- legato playing
- broken octaves
- broken chords/arpeggios
- changes of hand position
- time taken to learn new repertoire
- awkward or non-ideal fingering
- overall feeling of security
This survey did not find any significant difference in perceived improvements among the group with the smallest hands (<7.5 inches) compared to those with slightly larger hands (between 7.5 and 8 inches).
For a pianist with a hand span closer to the average for females, changes may be more subtle, such as the improved legato playing, musical line and phrasing and reduced tension when playing octaves. This group of pianists, who can pay a 10th for the first time, also find that are able to tackle repertoire normally the preserve of male pianists, such as works by Rachmaninoff and other Russian composers, Ravel, and advanced Chopin or Liszt works requiring larger spans to play effectively.
A Walter upright piano with DS5.5® (7/8) keyboard was provided at the 2011 Australasian Piano Pedagogy Conference for delegates to try. Despite the fact that most of those who played it did so for no more than 15 minutes, all who played long enough to feel sufficiently comfortable found certain skills to be easier, including males with hand spans of more than 8 inches (20 cm). ‘Octave passages’ and ‘balance and voicing’ were most commonly noted as being easier. At the 2013 and 2015 Australasian Piano Pedagogy Conferences a Kawai GM12 grand piano with 15/16 keyboard was available; delegates trying it out found that the time needed to adjust from the conventional keyboard was minimal.
At the 2015 conference, six of Melbourne’s top professional pianists took part in a recital and panel discussion using the Kawai GM12. Their hand spans ranged from 7.1 to 9.2 inches and they had all had very little practice time on the smaller sized keys. For the pieces they chose, ALL pianists discovered advantages when playing the 15/16 keyboard. For those with the smallest spans, the benefits were profound and wide-reaching, while for those males with the largest hands, they found larger intervals (9ths and 10ths) much easier, as well as voicing of large chords such as in a Rachmaninoff Etude. This experience suggests that smaller keyboards would benefit a very large majority of pianists at least for some repertoire – including those with spans of more than 9 inches! It also indicates that repertoire written by some very large-handed male composers – Rachmaninoff, Vine, Grainger, Liszt – is inaccessible to many, and even male pianists with ‘average’ hands are able to perform some of their works more successfully on a keyboard with narrower keys.
Although its focus is not about ESPKs as such, an excellent book published by Oxford University Press – Adaptive Strategies for Small-Handed Pianists (Deahl & Wristen, 2017) – provides a great summary of the many ‘work-around’ strategies that small-handed pianists need to adopt and gives the clear message that the issues are not trivial. The title does not totally convey the breadth of what is covered – the introductory chapters deal with the evolution of the piano and piano repertoire, anatomy and biomechanical principles relevant to piano playing, the wide-ranging problems of small-handed pianists and common maladaptive tendencies.
A collection of quotes and personal stories from many pianists and teachers can be found here: http://smallpianokeyboards.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/PASK-Quotes-and-stories_March-2018.pdf
* ESPK- Ergonomically scaled piano keyboard