If you're a piano player, and your hands never grew much past the stage when you traced turkey feathers around them, the effect can hamper your playing career, if not outright end it.
“Many small-handed pianists just give up playing, and it’s really tragic,” Brenda Wristen, associate professor in the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Glenn Korff School of Music, said in a news release announcing the publication of a book written with the goal of showing that there’s more than one way to tickle the keys.
The book, titled, “Adaptive Strategies for Small-Handed Pianists,” is co-authored by Wristen, whose research at UNL focuses on piano pedagogy.
Wristen has been actively involved in growing the number of piano players in the area. She’s currently supervising a class called, “The Community Piano Experience,” in which adults learn basic music reading and keyboard skills. She’s conducted studies on the benefits of a ⅞-size keyboard for piano players, who, unlike, say, string instrument performers, have been restricted to playing an instrument where “one size fits all” has been the prevailing wisdom. The book, she said, is an effort to provide players with tools that can help them adapt in a field where they’ve often been told to conform.
“It’s called ‘Adaptive Strategies for Small-Handed Pianists’ to help people think creatively about their technique instead of doing what most of us tend to do, which is to spend hours of fruitless and potentially injury-causing practice trying to force our hands to be bigger somehow,” she said. “For years, small-handedness has been viewed as a barrier to pianism. Unfortunately in the past, the response to that has typically been to try to stretch the hand, and there have been some devastating injuries that have come about as a result.”
Wristen co-wrote the book with Lora Deahl, a piano and keyboard literature professor at Texas Tech University. With sections with titles such as “Newton’s Laws and Piano Technique,” the co-authors delve into technical territory in the book, described as a first-of-its-kind focus on this specific set of piano players.
“The authors have known many gifted performers who faced great difficulties playing standard-sized keyboards,” they write. “Their special needs have been frequently ignored, misunderstood or underestimated by those who have never had to grapple with issues of hand size. In the past, there has been little conversation among pianists about how to accommodate small hands at the instrument. However, as musicians increasingly accept that physical injury can arise in even the most talented of players, attention has turned to defining the healthful boundaries of piano playing.”
The book defines small handedness by focusing on if a player struggles in any of three categories — fatigue, power and reach. Citing a 2015 demographic study on pianists, Wristen said that the collection of small-handed piano players might be bigger than you’d think.
“Basically, what they found was that among all the pianists they studied, and it was a very large population, 87.1 percent of the women were small-handed,” she said. “Wow, now that’s a pretty startling statistic. But here’s something that’s even more surprising: 23.8 percent of the men in their study had small hands as well. And they also observed that highly acclaimed solo pianists tended to have bigger hands. Having a small hand, myself, I’ve certainly been challenged over the years to find ways to play big repertoire.”
To combat the challenges that Wristen and other small-handed players face, the authors provide an array of exercises — using “arm impulses” and “fan-shaped forearm gestures” are among the options suggested. With each, Wristen said, the goal was to keep the focus on the music, if not the conventional wisdom of how to reach the notes to play it.
“There is no reason that we have to use a particular fingering if we can get a better musical result with a fingering that is more suited to our hands,” Wristen said in the release. “With all the strategies that are in this book, I will say that the music comes first. There are more than 300 musical examples contained in this book from the piano literature. In every case, my co-author and I started with ‘How can we respect the musical content of the score and find a way for our bodies to deliver that?’ The main objective of this book is to empower small-handed pianists to look at music and think about music in a way that frees them from that visual tyranny, and that’s a hard skill set to develop.”
“Adaptive Strategies for Small-Handed Pianists” was published by the Oxford University Press and can be purchased on its website (global.oup.com) for $35.