Small Hands

Question: Hi Albert,

I am a retired female who has returned to the piano about three months ago. Haven’t found a teacher yet so don’t have access to answers to some of my difficulties so far. One of my chief concerns has to do with the smallness of my hands (I’m 5’1″) and my inability to reach all the notes of a particular chord. One piece (Schubert Op. 142, No. 3) has a chord that is comprised of an E flat, A, and an F. There is no way my hand can reach all of the notes. In fact, in many instances, my hand cannot always reach and play an octave cleanly. I’m concerned that I may be doomed to playing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” if I can’t play anything more challenging. I consider myself to be an advanced beginner, having had lessons for short periods scattered throughout my life. Never in a very disciplined manner. But now that I have all the time in the world to practice, I’m going at it with a vengeance (getting up to three hours a day).

My question is: What are my realistic expectations of being able to handle all the notes cleanly and will my fingers stretch with continual practice? If I can’t reach all the notes, how should I handle the chord? I’m discouraged and encouraged at the same time when I see a 4-year-old on YouTube banging out a Clementi piece I’ve been struggling with for three months. Surely her fingers have to be as small as mine yet she’s able to play every last note in the piece (by memory yet!).

Thanks for taking the time to answer all of our questions. Your input is so valuable and your willingness to share your knowledge even more so. Thanks so much.

– Loni Ellis (Silver Spring, Maryland, USA)

Albert’s reply: I’m an advocate of finding music that fits our hands, the way singers perform music that fits their voice. Vocal music is chosen not only according to a singer’s vocal range (soprano, alto, contralto, tenor, baritone, bass), but also according to the voice’s quality (lyrical soprano, coloratura soprano, dramatic soprano, etc.).

Pianists are all too often expected to play any and all repertoire, a practice that strikes me as unfortunate. Conductors have the same expectations set for them. I sometimes hear conductors who are outstanding musicians but who perform music entirely unsuited to their individual temperament. Why?! The literature is enormous. It’s better to find music that fits your hands as well as it does your temperament!

That said, there’s very much that can be accomplished with small hands. I’ve had students with tiny hands who could play Liszt and Prokofiev and I marvel at their ability to do so. Sometimes they have to adjust the voicing of a chord, and there’s absolutely no problem doing so.

More often, widely spread chords must be arpeggiated, in which the notes are played rapidly, starting from the bottom. (In Baroque keyboard music, it is also possible to arpeggiate some chords top-to-bottom, but this is only rarely done.)

There are cases in which arpeggiation is disruptive. Despite my large hands (I can fairly comfortably stretch an eleventh on white keys, from C to F), I omit a note on the first page of Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata (the B-flat on the downbeat of m. 15), since arpeggiating the chord as many pianists do disrupts the musical flow, yet omitting the note is totally unnoticeable:

The reason this note is included is for voice leading, and if the sonata were orchestrated, the note would definitely be played. On piano arpeggiating this chord sounds clumsy to my ears. Also, we shouldn’t forget that piano keys are slightly wider than they were on fortepianos of Beethoven’s time. I believe this is the only note in my repertoire that I omit.

Finally, even if you were “doomed” to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” for the rest of your life, that wouldn’t be all that bad! You know, Mozart wrote a beautiful (and hardly easy) set of variations on the French nursery rhyme “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman” – better known to English speakers as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

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