I started playing the piano at age 3, and my hands remained the same size since then. OK, that was a huge exaggeration, but with some truth to it. All of my life, I have experienced countless comments and reactions from people regarding my "tiny hands." I still remember the awkwardness I felt after playing for one particular competition as a child. The judge called me up after the performance and uttered, "How do you play with such tiny hands?" as she flipped my hands back and forth in disbelief.
Despite people's observations, I did not grow up thinking my hands were too small to play the piano, and managed to pull off an intense amount of practicing throughout high school and college. But my world as a pianist fell apart during my senior year in college, when I sustained a performance-related injury in my hands, wrists and arms. When reaching an octave on a standard sized keyboard, my hands had to stretch out of alignment and into the danger zone of this injury. I knew I wanted a career centering in piano performance and pedagogy, and since I couldn't grow my hands larger... I started looking into other options.
From 2007-2009, I worked with Dr. Leone at SMU Meadows School of the Arts in Dallas, TX on an "ergonomically-scaled piano keyboard" (ESPK). The ESPK replaces the action of the standard piano so that it is ergonomically scaled for those of us with smaller hands. At SMU, I studied and performed on a DS5.5™ built by Steinbuhler & Company that has a 5 1/2 inch octave as opposed to the conventional 6 1/2 inch octave. For me, the adjustment was instantaneous. I was amazed that my hands no longer felt small; for the first time, I felt like a big person at the piano. Coupled with this delightful surprise, there was also a painful realization that this is the confidence and physical comfort most people feel at the piano.
I found the ESPK to be much more than a gadget you can slide into the piano, but an important tool that aids in musical expression and ergonomic, pain-free playing. Pianists and listeners will be happy to know as well that the ESPK does not compromise the sound of the original keyboard. During my time at SMU, I mainly worked on Romantic and Contemporary repertoire on the ESPK, and ended up playing the second half of my Master's recital with it. Contrary to fears about using both keyboards, I was able to transfer Chopin Sonata No. 3 from ESPK to standard and performed the piece as a finalist at the TMTA Young Artist Competition in 2009.
Using the ESPK has enabled several personal victories in my playing: 1) more power and sound with less energy spent, 2) better phrasing in lyrical lines that are often compromised at the standard keyboard, and 3) less chance for a performance-related injury to happen or reoccur. I have benefited both musically and physically by using the ESPK, and I know I will continue performing on one and researching its benefits and long term effects.
The number of people that are dedicated to advocating ESPK is growing, and we are now proud to have an international competition that allows contestants to compete on an ESPK. I would encourage more pianists to think outside the box, and seek different ways to enhance performance. If ESPK can provide a more musical, healthy performance for some pianists, I see no reason to avoid at least trying it. Especially if you have hands the size of a 3-year-old like me.
How does Grace's story resonate with you? Have you tried the ESPK before? Do you have students that would benefit from using the ESPK? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.
Dr. Carol Leone: http://www.carolleone.com
Dallas International Piano Competition: http://www.dallasipc.org
Pianists for Alternate Size Keyboards: http://www.paskpiano.org, https://www.facebook.com/pask.piano
Small Piano Keyboards: http://www.smallpianokeyboards.org
Steinbuhler & Company: http://www.steinbuhler.com
Grace Choi is currently pursuing her Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Music Education at the Eastman School of Music. She is the first pianist to be accepted to this unique doctoral program at Eastman, and was recently awarded the Teaching Assistant Prize for Excellence in Teaching.