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Piano Technique: The big hand/little hand controversy (Videos)

I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked the same question by either parents, or people I meet on Amtrak. It’s about “piano fingers,” “hand size,” and the best physiological fit for the keyboard. Next in line are queries about tone deafness and “perfect pitch.”

The stereotypes are: A great pianist has God-given perfect pitch and long-tapered fingers. End of story.

Now if you log onto You Tube and sample lots of remarkable piano playing, you’ll quickly discover that short and stubby fingers can work musical magic.

Example, the late Alicia de Larrocha defied all physical stereotypes: She was pint-sized and with little fingers. (the pairing was perfect)

Given her bio-genetics and 4’9″ inch height, you can watch her rip through a fiery composition!

De Falla’s “Ritual Fire Dance”

Try this out for size. Alicia playing Liszt’s “La Campanella”–

Talk about finger stretches that KILL!

I wish we could SEE her in this one. But listening without the distraction of vision is even better. Imagine this woman dancing around the keys.

It’s mind-boggling!

I’ve also discovered that Artur Rubinstein had rather small hands, and Daniel Barenboim, even smaller.

A famous pianist of yesteryear, Arthur Loesser, was said to have diminutive hands and fingers but played with finesse and fluidity.

(To be a devil’s advocate, I’ll admit that I’ve had students with such thick, long fingers, that if sandwiched between two black notes, their one finger couldn’t avoid depressing more than one key. And there was no easy way around it.)

After all is said and done, however, one must admit that some passages in the piano literature are more easily navigated with big hands and long fingers.

So why should I bring this up? Well, because my current obsession is Variation 3 of Mozart’s Sonata in A Major, K. 331 with finger-jamming parallel octaves in legato. (smooth and connected)

To cut a long story short, after I carved out what seemed to be a legato-feasible fingering, I found that my work-horse wrist had to elevate beyond comfort.

One solution was to lower the wrist and change my fingering. And that I did.

So even with my smaller hands, I smoothed out a gnawing passage, avoiding further anguish.

To satisfy your curiosity, watch this video, and think of what Professor Henry Higgins said to “My Fair Lady” as he rehearsed the Cockney out of her:

“I think you’ve got it!”

Play through Variation 3:


A pitch for a reduced-size piano!

When Big hands/fingers play unwanted notes

13 thoughts on “Piano Technique: The big hand/little hand controversy (Videos)”

  1. According to what I’ve read about Alicia de Larrocha, she also had an unusually flexible stretch between her finger that allowed her to compensate for her small hands. That’s something I lack, and my hands are simply too small — period — for much of the literature. to my sorrow. I think you’re on the right track, to seek work-arounds where you can. That’s an added element for my teacher and I to consider when fleshing out various pieces and it can be a challenge — sometimes it involves jettisoning the fingering as written. Other times we eliminate some notes from big filled chords, re-distribute notes between the two hands where feasible, finesse some phrases with pedal or added rubato.


  2. Interesting feedback on your adjustments, flexibilities… but still not clear on what Alicia possessed beside a small hand. I just think she had a good upper arm roll, and realized her finger energies were generated beyond them.

    I was finally satisfied with my parallel octaves as rendered in a most recent FB post. The clincher was just changing the fingering so I relied more on fingers 4, and 5 in the octaves, factoring out finger 3 which pushed my wrist forward, creating tension and stress. I also psychologically tricked myself into thinking that I had no thumbs and was relaxingly playing the upper fingers. Auto-suggestion is a big component of piano playing. Thanks for your sharing.


      1. I agree that flexibility of reach is important, not necessarily finger length. While her hands (and reach) may have been small compared to many male concerts pianists, her span was larger than that of the majority of women.


  3. If you consider Arthur Loesser who also had small hands, and so does Barenboim, it doesn’t really matter whether small hands can reach a tenth or not, (male or female population) but again the flexibility of the pianist through many dimensions of playing is pivotal. Fingers do not necessarily play the piano, but rather wrists and arms provide bigger energies to mobilize fingers.. to shape, sculpt phrases. Arthur Rubinstein had rather small hands as well. There is a misconception that finger length has a formidable relationship to beautiful piano playing when it doesn’t…


  4. As someone has mentioned above, Alicia de Larrocha could reach a 10th at her peak time. I read that Daniel Barenboim could reach a 9th. Yuja Wang could strike a 10th also even though may thought she has “small hands”. If that’s true then that could actually be called having small hands. For the majority of females though, even good stretch cannot allow them to play a 10th comfortably. I myself have very small hands. My hand span is only 7 inches which allows me to play an octave. My hands are very flexible. The 7 inches comes when I stretch my thumb and my pinky to nearly 180 degrees. I can also stretch the thumb and my 4th to nearly 180 degrees. I don’t think my hands can be further stretched. That does not allow me to play quick jumps between octaves. I can’t do the octave exercises without hitting the neighboring keys. If I go at it too hard I’m afraid I’ll injure myself by forcing my hands into unhealthy positions repeatedly. A small handed pianist made a video about her struggles and the solution here if you are interested.

    The struggles are very real. When I take problems during my practice to my piano teacher a lot of the times she doesn’t have a solution to it because she never encountered those issues with bigger hands (she can reach a 10th comfortably). There have been many studies regarding hand size and injury and the correlation is clear. Small handed pianists have to overcome so many unnecessary “challenges” because the 6.5 “standard” keyboard is not designed for small hands to begin with. Bigger hands have so many advantages. For example when jumping from one note to a distantly placed note, small-handed pianists need to use their arms to find the notes and refrain from reaching with the fingers. This necessitates much practice purely for the sake of accuracy. I do this all the time, and have to practice “blind jumps” enabled by my arm time and time again movement just for the sake of accuracy without suffering the musicality. Let alone more problems that come with the tension of having hands stretched to its limits all the time. It’s not the right size. It’s just that simple.

    It is true that big hands don’t necessarily have bigger reaches. Stretches do matter, but only to a degree. Having small hands like mine that needs exert myself to play octaves is a serious disadvantage. To neglect the disadvantage is unfair.


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