What Are "Piano Hands"?

 

Is there such a thing as a “piano hand”? Do your hands need to be a certain size or shape for them to be suitable for playing piano?

Do you need big hands?

Let’s start with the question of whether you need big hands to play the piano. It’s true that there are certain pieces that seem to require very large hands – but such pieces are really the exception rather than the rule. (One such exception is some of the bigger works by the 19th-century composer Alkan, which I recorded for my debut CD.) I think composers really should write for average-sized hands. Why should composers limit their works to pianists with extremely large hands?

Fortunately, the vast majority of composers do take most players’ hands into account. In general, if your hands can stretch an octave, you can play most piano music. I’ve heard students with tiny hands who could play Liszt rhapsodies and Prokofiev sonatas brilliantly!

On the other end of the spectrum, child prodigies can be too tiny even to reach the pedals, yet they can still play very advanced music. I once heard the then-eight-year-old Helen Huang play the most perfect Mozart A major Concerto (K. 488) in a masterclass. The most astonishing prodigy I’ve ever heard (albeit not live) is Aimi Kobayashi, who started playing at age three and within a year could perform pieces as well as a professional artist, no joke. Obviously she’s a genius-level natural talent and also had first-rate teaching from the very beginning, though no amount of training can make her four-year-old hands any less tiny.

Choosing repertoire for your hands

Singers choose repertoire for their voice type. There are the standard vocal ranges: soprano, alto, tenor and bass. We see these four voice types in most sacred music such as Bach’s chorales, and they are also There are also in-between classifications such as mezzo-soprano, contralto, baritone and bass-baritone. Even within a standard vocal range there are many subdivisions. “Soprano” can be divided into lyrical soprano, dramatic soprano, coloratura soprano, soubrette, spinto, and even more. There are sometimes even subdivisions of subdivisions: “Coloratura soprano” can be further subdivided into lyric coloratura soprano and dramatic coloratura soprano – not to be confused with lyric soprano and dramatic soprano!

Singers of each type choose repertoire within their “Fach,” or category. Singers do sometimes move to a different Fach, such as a soubrette moving to lyric coloratura roles, or even changing voice types altogether, such as a soprano moving to mezzo-soprano. Such changes generally require a considerable period of retraining.

Pianists can model singers and choose repertoire that best suits their hands. There’s no need to struggle through a piece that was clearly written with larger hands in mind, especially when there is so much great music to choose from that will fit smaller hands.

Even very large hands are by no means always a blessing. I know a pianist who can finger chromatic octaves with 5–1 on white keys and, astonishingly, 4–2 on black keys! (My large but not gigantic hands can stretch a 5th using fingers 4–2, which is quite normal.) This pianist told me that while open hand positions are comfortable for him, he can have trouble with closed hand positions that require the fingers to be within a small space.

Custom piano keyboards

It’s worth noting that piano keyboards used to be smaller! The keys on so-called fortepianos – the early pianos that Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven played – were slightly narrower. Moreover, the keys were much lighter to play and only could be pressed about half as far as today’s grand pianos. This certainly affects pianists when we play music written for these older pianos on modern instruments with their much heavier keys that we also need to press further down.

Beethoven wrote a pianistically novel passage in his second published piano sonata. The opening movement of the Sonata in A major, Op. 2, No. 2, has this passage:

This is a rare example of Beethoven specifying fingering. However, even pianists with large hands are unable to play this passage using Beethoven’s fingering on a modern piano. (If you know of anyone who does so, please leave a comment below. I’ve never heard of any modern-day pianists using this fingering.) The keys on today’s pianos are simply too wide for this fingering to make any sense. Instead, the best solution in this case is to split the passage between the hands:

In this version, the red notes should be played with the left hand.

Josef Hofmann is well-known as one of the greatest pianists of the so-called Golden Age of piano playing. Less known is that he was also an accomplished inventor with more than 70 patents to his name, including windshield wipers (inspired by the pendulum motion of the metronome) and pneumatic shock absorbers. Hofmann also designed and patented a slightly narrower keyboard with a faster action that was eventually produced by Steinway. According to Abbey Simon, only about half a dozen were ever manufactured, though, as the smaller keyboard never caught on.

Hand span

More important than the mere length of the fingers is opening the hand. Some hands are smaller but they can stretch more. I’ve encountered pianists with smaller hands than mine whose hand span was nonetheless as wide as mine. (I can comfortably reach a 10th and reach an 11th if I really stretch the hand.)

Modifying passages to fit hand

Every once in a while you’ll encounter a passage that just doesn’t fit the hand. It might be just that one chord in a piece that you can otherwise play perfectly well. Usually it’s just a single note in the chord. In such cases, we should use our musical judgment. Rather than disrupt the musical flow by slavishly trying to obey the composer’s orders, it’s at least worth seeing whether we can find a more musical solution to that spot.

An example is in Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata. It is said that learning the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas is really two projects: the “Hammerklavier” on the one hand and all the other 31 on the other. Beethoven himself wrote to his publisher, “At last you have a sonata that will keep the pianists busy when they play it 50 years hence.” Not only does it contain the longest and arguably most tragic slow movement in instrumental history, but the fugal last movement in particular is rightly considered among the hardest finger twisters ever written.

The opening page of the sonata contains a chord that requires stretching the right hand from B-flat to C an octave above it while the index finger plays D. (Technically speaking, the C is not part of the chord but rather a dissonant note.) This is hardly a “great difficulty” that only “real virtuosos” can surmount; it’s simply awkwardly written for the hand, especially given the slightly broader keys on a modern piano compared to Beethoven’s piano of 1817. Some pianists arpeggiate this chord, but it sounds awkward and disrupts the musical flow. I believe it’s better just to omit one of the lower notes. (I leave out the low B-flat and no one has ever noticed.)

Shape

One thing we do need to be able to do is play between the black keys. Some piano keyboards have slightly thinner black keys. Even the width of the black keys is not constant on the modern piano. It’s worth keeping this fact in mind in case you encounter a piano with thicker or thinner black keys than you’re used to.

A “Real” Piano Hand

Let’s talk about the qualities we should develop in our hands for piano playing.

Flexibility

The hands should be flexible but not hypermobile – in other words, not double-jointed. The fingers should always be curved, and they should never bend backwards at the joints.

Dexterity

We need to be able to get around the keyboard. The more we can do so with as little effort as possible, the broader will be the range of repertoire we can play. Moving from one hand position to another is the work of the arms, particularly when hand positions are not adjacent. Playing within a given hand position requires dexterity from the fingers. This can be improved through careful exercises including scales, arpeggios and sometimes double notes.

Releasing the fingers

The ability to release the fingers is one of the most important aspects of a “real” piano hand. For expressive playing, we need two things:

Being able to release the fingers quickly is important in fast passages. This is what allows us to play articulately, to say what we have to say clearly. If we jumbled or mumbled speech, it would be difficult to understand what we’re trying to say. It’s the same in music.

Like articulating syllables, words and phrases in speech, the way we articulate notes in music needs to be appropriate to what we wish to say for it to sound natural. If we overly articulate speech, it sounds highly unnatural.

A slow, or controlled, release of the keys is likewise important for expressive playing. One of the variables to a pianist’s touch is the speed of release. I recommend experimenting with releasing the keys at varying slow speeds to develop further control.

Strength and endurance

Finally, the muscles of our hands do need a certain amount of strength to play the piano. Part of muscular development is endurance. It takes physical (as well as mental) endurance to practice several hours every day. Practicing scales – while varying articulation, dynamics and tempo – is a good way to develop both strength and endurance of the hands.

Conclusion

Ultimately, like singers, we can only work with what we’ve been given. While some pianists may seem to have “natural” piano hands, even concert pianists’ hands come in many different shapes and sizes. Our hands are malleable to a surprising degree. While adults can’t magically grow longer fingers, we can increase their dexterity, strength and even flexibility.

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