Question: Hello. I too am a late beginner—started just before I turned 18. So far I have managed to play Mozart's Rondo Alla Turca and some other easy pieces. But the thing I really worry about is my hand span. It only covers an octave and since I'm already 18, my hands won't grow anymore. I have found that this limits my piano technique, but I REALLY want to attain PERFECT technique. How can I get a better technique? Will the fact that I don't have a large enough hand span stop me from pursuing a professional music career?
P.S. I watched you playing Alkan and my GOD!! You are AMAZING!!! Will I ever be able to play like you?!!!
Albert's reply: Large hands are a mixed blessing. Mine are large—I can (barely) span a twelfth, from C to G, but reasonably only an eleventh (C to F). (I sometimes joke that I discovered the easiest Chopin etude: Op. 10, No. 11, which is a study in wide arpeggios that are obviated by large hands.) Evidently Rachmaninoff and Van Cliburn could span a thirteenth (C to A)!
Hands have other properties as well. A friend of mine has hands that are the same size as mine (maybe very slightly larger), yet his second and fourth fingers can span an entire octave! (Mine can span a fifth.) The sheer size of the hands and length of the fingers are thus not decisive.
Having a great technique involves far more than mere hand size. Alicia Delaroccha (sp?) had tiny hands yet could play extremely difficult music such as the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto and Iberia by Albéniz. She had to make adjustments only in the form of arpeggiating widely spread chords, playing the notes rapidly in succession rather than together, or playing first the bass note and then the remaining notes together. That her hands happened to be small never disrupted the musical flow or expression—quite the contrary, as she had a masterful technique.
I greatly appreciate your kind comments regarding my playing of Alkan. He does seem to me to be the only composer for the piano who really did seem to require large hands, without which a fair amount of his music is inaccessible. There are even passages for which my hands are a bit too small! Fortunately for me, I'm never forced to change fingerings for these passages, which tend to be so fast that any alternate fingering renders them unplayable. Unfortunately, either your hands are very large and you can play these passages, or your hands are too small and you can't. I consider this a fault of the composer, who really ought to have accommodated a reasonable hand span. Alkan's contemporaries Liszt and Chopin often require rather wide stretches, yet they wrote their music so cleverly that these passages can be navigated musically with smaller hands as well.
That said, there are stretching exercises such as Horowitz's that can help to open up the hand, but only when performed with caution and under the guidance of an expert teacher. For starters, I recommend playing dominant seventh arpeggios in all inversions, and then progressing to major sevenths in root position. You should find that this exercise opens up the hands.
In the end, while a very small part of the piano literature may be inaccessible to those with small hands, this fact is practically negligible given the enormity of the repertoire.