Small hands Unite!
I'm a pianist with small hands myself and a teacher who has worked with many students whose hands can't reach an octave. There are lots of advantages with having smaller hands such as being nimbler through the keys.
But we also come with our own struggles.
So here is a list of 8 things I've learned and accepted that have drastically improve my piano playing ability as well as my students.
People with smaller hands are going to have to learn how to:
#1 - trust in the relaxed suppleness the hand
If you have a smaller hands, you actually want to spend more of your time in the relaxed closed position of the hand.
This sounds counter-intuitive because one of the biggest dangers that small hands need to be aware of is tension.
Naturally, smaller hands are more prone tension simply because the fingers have to reach- and it is in this reaching that creates tension.
For example, when there are wide spreads of notes, You think you’ll have to reach and stretch for the notes but it’s a trap. While your fingers might be closer to the notes, you’ll be sacrificing reach for a build up tension that will lock your movement and then it’s game over. For small hands especially, even one millimetre of reduced stretching, and thus, less tension, can have profound effects.
When it’s possible, never sacrifice anything for tension.
Thus, small hands need to learn how to maintain relaxed and supple hands as a priority, allowing other parts of the body to help get the fingers where they need to go.
#2 - Trust in the wrist and arm.
This leads us into learning how to use the wrist and arms to help bring the notes to the fingers.
Because smaller hands want to avoid stretching, the wrist and arms need to move more than you think to get that comfortable hand from point A to B.
When watching professional players, it might not seem like they’re moving much when they play - and might be true for various reasons. One reason is simply because their hand is larger and they don’t need to; Larger hands don’t need to involve as much movement from the wrist and arm as much because their fingers can already reach.
So consider that when you’re learning to improve your technique by watching professional pianists play, it would be a good idea to take note of their hand size. Maybe even find pianists who have similar hand sizes to yourself and watch how they navigate the keys.
#3 - Reach more using the 90 degree method
I came across this concept from Alan Fraser’s book “Honing the Pianists Self-Image” (AMAZING book by the way. I’ll make a book review one day!).
Spreading your fingers horizontally will only get you so far as the hand builds up tension. But if you hold one your fingers at 90 degrees, you’ll get and extra reach. Couple that up with the concept of rolling on the tips of your fingers, supple wrist, and arm alignment and it’s a force to be reckoned with - Liszt's bicycle wheel technique, as Fraser called it.
Here's a little more in depth video on increasing your hand's reach:
#4 - Need to be more aware of the In & Out
Note that each finger is different in length from each other. This difference in length needs to be accommodated. If you fingers are shorter overall, you’re going to have to understand the In and Out movement more deeply and learn how to use that easily to navigate the keys better.
#5 - Develop Body Awareness and Sensitivity
Be acutely conscious and sensitive in understanding and utilizing physical technique and navigation at a deeper level
This DOES NOT mean that people with smaller hands have better technique than with larger hands. What I am saying is that those with larger hands might be able to get away with certain things- like how they move around piano simply because everything is more in their comfortable reach. As result, those with small hands, naturally, have to be more aware and conscious about how they are going to move around the piano to get to point A to B more easily and effectively.
#6- Accept that there is some things you simply can’t reach - and that is okay and possibly beneficial
This might be hard to hear but that is true.
No matter how much you feel that the opening solid chords in Rach 2 sounds better without rolling the notes, smaller hands just can’t.
And that’s okay.
On the bright side, it’s an opportunity to learn how to split up chords and make it sound good - and if you like a challenge - perhaps you can make it sound just as good or even better than a solid chord.
Even Yuja splits breaks up the chords and sometimes and it still works. That there, I think, is even more spectacular and a better show of musicianship and skill.
Tip #7 - Masterful relaxer
As mentioned before, because smaller hands have farther distances to reach, they have to be very sensitive towards tension. Even one millimetre of relief from tension in the hands, joints, or arms, will have profound affect on the range of motion. Those with smaller hands need to be acutely aware of:
when they have tension
how much tension is necessary
when and how quickly you need to release tension in order to avoid compromising the range of motion.
#8- Master at fingerings
Having small hands is helpful in being agile on the keyboard. When those fingers can’t reach some notes as easily, small hands begin to learn how have strategic fingerings and techniques. Personally, I noticed that I had an easier time navigating Bach because I was already aware of how to use finger substitutions and strategic fingering earlier on in my learning from easier pieces. Combine that with the sensitivity with tension and mobility and those with smaller hands become master craftsmen with choosing appropriate and ingenious fingerings.
Does that means that those with smaller hands automatically have better technique than those with larger hands?
No, of course not.
Everyone’s hands are different and thus, we all have our own customized technique.
However, the ideas mentioned in this post is also highly applicable to all hand sizes. I’m sure that those with larger hands also have their advantages and solutions that smaller hands could adopt.
So let’s play the pianist game : what’s your hand’s range and what is one thing you’ve learned due to you hand’s natural ability?
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