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Small hand challenges playing Gershwin’s Prelude No. 2

As teachers, we’re in a position to advise our students about navigating big stretches that may not comfortably fit hands that are small or even moderate in size.

George Gershwin’s Prelude No. 2, a bluesy lullaby, is exemplary in requiring artful phrasing of relentless measures that have these wide interval spans beyond the reach of many students.

Breaking an opening minor tenth in the bass, for instance, is an accommodation the composer himself makes in a historical recording. Hearing him break the C# root and distanced third, ‘E’ reveals his awareness that playing the two widely spaced notes simultaneously was going to be challenge. In addition, the interwoven bass thread intro that contains 4 meandering chromatics, requires the player to create an illusion of legato by hand rotations and well-rendered pedaling. (perhaps long fingers can better execute a seamless legato through these measures)

As the composition rolls out, there are far more tricky passages in both the treble and bass that are rotation dependent, needing relaxed arms and supple wrists to supply uninterrupted energy. (Fingering choices are naturally wrapped into this pursuit.)

A subsequent Right Hand rendered octave section (measures 18-22) with an embedded middle voice bundled in, carries the opening theme (in an improvised spirit) that seems treacherous to play unless the pianist first unshackles the baggage, and practices the upper voice only with a sense of ease. When adding in remaining note ingredients, the pianist must self-hypnotize into a zone of “feeling” the uppermost melodic thread without squeezing the hand into a stiff octave framing, or making the undertaking an overall steely endeavor. (Such speaks to “illusions” and the anti-gravity dimensions of playing our beloved instrument) My tutorial below demonstrates how I unravel this particular section among others.

Besides exploring and experimenting with rotations, angles of the hands and arms, etc. to execute Gershwin’s tricky and often awkward threads, the pianist must simultaneously address phrasing/musical expression. It’s a mighty task considering the many physical obstacles that the piece presents.

Given the repetition of the theme in various “improvised” settings that not only add octave renderings, but grace note inserts in the treble against what are often splits of parallel 10ths, etc. in the bass and lots more, the learner with smaller hands has a generous plate of well-focused practicing in thoughtful increments before him.

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The middle section (measures 31-44) which I execute with crossed hands (Right hand under Left) can feel awkward for some, though it gives relief from having to break large interval spreads. The notes in the bass and treble are thankfully within easy range for most.

Finally, above and beyond the technical dimension of absorbing this gorgeous bluesy lullaby, is the sheer joy of experiencing its lush harmonic transitions that include the Major and parallel minor juxtapositions; the moaning 4 note embedded chromatics, the jazzy 7ths and 9ths that enrich the sonorities, and the final C# Major 7th broken chord ascent that leaves us in heaven without a predictable final cadence. It’s the bluesy ending that we can collectively embrace in state of ethereal suspension.

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The composer, George Gershwin playing his own music–interesting middle section change in tempo– marked Largamente con moto–and very moving somber, slow paced mood-set of the framing sections.

5 thoughts on “Small hand challenges playing Gershwin’s Prelude No. 2”

  1. Thank you very much for this tutorial! I’ve wanted to play this piece so badly, but struggled as a small-handed person. The example that you provide yourself is very different than Gershwin’s, and listening to them both has been incredibly helpful.

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  2. Thank you for your very nice description of Gershwin’s very beautiful piece. Knowing that Gershwin often played sections cross-hand I wondered if anyone else did it in that style since it isn’t explicitly called for in the music itself. I was happy to see that you perform in that manner. I do as well but I prefer right over left.
    One I happen to discover accidentally is a way to solve the problem of the minor tenth in the opening notes. I was goofing around one day and saw that I could reach the minor tenth between A# and C# without colliding with another key like I collide with D# when trying to play the C#/E combo. So, my solution was to change the key of the opening/closing to A#min and the middle to Eb, or a step and a half down each respectfully. I can play it much easier even though I still have to roll the chromatic climb of the major tenth within the piece.
    But, it sounds different in A#min. To workaround that I use the transpose function on my Yamaha 300 stage piano and play it in the original key of C#min while using the fingering of A#min/Eb.
    Anyway, thanks again and happy playing!
    Cheers,
    Allan

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