I am a pianist with small hands.
That presents a challenge when many composers (cough, cough Rachmaninoff) write lovely pieces with large chords. Over the years, I’ve learned strategies for facing these challenges. Below are four tips on playing large intervals as a small-handed pianist that promotes healthy technique and ease of tension. But first a little self-diagnostic!
What is Your Span?
Most of us can stretch to large intervals, but this can cause us to stretch so hard that maybe our hands begin to shake. This isn’t actually a usable stretch and can lead to injury.
Injuries, especially in tendons, are caused by repeated tension. When we force our hands to remain in uncomfortable or tense positions — such as in octave passages — we create the perfect environment for injuries like tendonitis. Additionally, when trying to reach intervals that may be almost or too large for our hands, new pianists have a tendency to bend their wrists in awkward positions, which cause different kinds of injuries.
To keep your hands, wrists, and arms safe, it’s important to first understand what your healthy span is.
Your span is the largest interval your hand can stretch without causing pain or feeling like you’re forcing it. It’s the largest usable interval.
For me, it started as an octave when I was in high school, and as I grew (only a little!), I’ve now got a 9th. But that’s it. If I force it, I could reach a 10th, but it’s not usable. I wouldn’t be able to get to that position quickly or bring my hand back to a comfortable position quickly.
So my span is a 9th. That’s very tiny for most piano repertoire, especially romantic, which is what I love to play.
Luckily, I’m not the only small-handed pianist in the world, and there are many helpful ways to adjust and keep my hands feeling happy and healthy.
1. Use Optimal Technique
When we play large intervals, a lot of us have a tendency to drop our wrists, especially if we’re playing on white keys only. If we’re sticking to our span, it’s actually a lot nicer on our hands, wrists, and forearms to raise the wrists a little higher than where it naturally sits.
This is true of block chords or if you’re leaping to a large interval. Bring your wrist up and over to keep your hands relaxed. This motion causes us to play more on the very tips of our fingers, which actually gives us a millimeter or two more length than we have when our wrists are level.
When we drop our wrists, we actually lose some length because we’re forced to play more on the pads of our fingertips.
Do this before adjusting notes because you may find that your span is slightly bigger than you thought. If this doesn’t work, you can begin to adjust what you’re playing.
Another issue pianists often face when playing large intervals is correct voicing. If you’re playing large intervals with the right hand, and the melody is played by the pinky, you might want to press down awkwardly using the strength of your pinky alone.
There are two problems with this.
First, even though we may practice drills that are meant to develop equal strength in every finger, our pinkies will always be a little weaker than our other fingers. This is because of where it’s located in the hand and because of the arrangement of muscles and tendons that move the pinky compared to the other fingers.
Second, forcing a finger to play louder than the other fingers using its strength alone creates tension, which can cause injury.
For voicing in chords, it’s most helpful to place the center of gravity for your hand over the finger that needs to be louder. This is a fundamental in piano technique that we often forget.
More weight and speed of attack = more sound.
To make it easier (and playing piano should feel easy and freeing), lean your hand towards whichever note you want to highlight. If the pinky has the melody, literally lean into it with your hand.
Another way of thinking of this concept of weight moving across your hand is to think of the actually rotation involved with shifting that weight, commonly called forearm rotation.
This video from Josh Wright explains better than I can in text:
Forearm rotation is something you have to master before you begin to feel weight shifting. In practicing this technique, you’ll simultaneously develop the weight technique discussed above in a healthy way.
2. Pick Up Notes With the Other Hand
Many times, composers will write a low bass line with some chords to be played by the inner voices of the piece. This may be a holdover from 4-part voice training: composers were and still are often taught “proper voice-leading” skills through writing four voices Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass that are often placed on a grand staff. Soprano and Alto go to Treble clef, and Tenor and Bass go to the Bass clef.
For thicker textures, composers just split these voices into two or three more parts but keep all those voices in the same place. You might find two notes of a chord at the top of the Bass clef (the Tenor voices) while there is a Bass line (the Bass voice) at the bottom of the same staff.
Because a lot of male composers comprise the standard repertoire, and men tend to have larger hands than women, they kept it written as is. But these Tenor notes can usually be picked up by the right hand if it’s outside the left-hand span or if it helps the Bass line’s articulation (if it’s legato, and it’s difficult to play off-beat chords in the same hand).
Sometimes editors will show these options using brackets that act like a scoop:
But if you’re reading from a score from IMSLP or from someone who didn’t think to include this kind of helpful information, you can definitely write these brackets in yourself.
For example, in the Brahms Intermezzo in A Major, Op. 118 No. 2, we have this:
I’d play the top notes in the Bass clef with my right hand. So I would draw my own scoops here because I got my copy from IMSLP.
The reason composers write this way is usually to make it easier to read. Otherwise, you’d have to deal with a lot of ledger lines under the treble clef, so to make a cleaner copy, this is something you’ll come across often!
Chords can sometimes be too large for both hands, so then we have to start adjusting what we’re actually playing, which is covered in the next points.
3. Change the Articulation
Instead of playing a single, large chord that doesn’t fit in our hands, we have a couple of options to break up the notes based upon the character of the piece.
If it’s a slow and lyrical piece, you can simply roll the chord, using the up and over wrist technique described in step 1 above.
This large A major chord
would become something like this:
If it’s a quicker piece, you can break the chord up into chunks, and play it as two separate musical events, starting from the bass and moving up.
This B-flat 7
would become something like:
Play with the speed until it feels and sounds good.
This doesn’t always work though, particularly if the piece is quick and metrically strict.
4. Change the Notes
This is a last resort, especially if you’re playing a well-known classical piece in a formal setting. Classical musicians sure love their “historical accuracy,” so to avoid arguments, we try to change notes as little as possible.
But if it’s absolutely impossible for you to play a large chord using any of the above methods, it becomes necessary to change or cut some notes from the chord.
To do this in a way that doesn’t alter the overall sound of the piece, you’ll need to know at least the theory of building chords. If you don’t, hop on over to musictheory.net or the Resources page to learn more about chords.
We don’t want to change the chord itself, so we first look to see if there are any repeated notes in inner voices. Often, you’ll see that the root of the chord (the note for which the chord is named — like C for C major) is repeated. If it’s in an inner voice and would be played by the thumb if you had large enough hands to reach it, then you can usually cut it.
This works because it’s more difficult for us to hear inner notes — they serve more of a textural purpose. And if the note already exists in the chord, we’re only losing reinforcement of that note. Just make sure the note you continue to play is easily heard, using the weight technique mentioned in step 1.
Times when you don’t want to cut an inner note are when the melody is in a middle voice or if the note you’d like to cut serves an important role to the sound of the chord. This means, for most traditional music, we want to keep the root and 3rd of the chord at the very least. If it has a 7th, especially if it’s a dominant 7th, we should keep the 7th.
In the “Rigaudon” from Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, I changed this measure
because of uncomfortable stretch. I can technically reach all of the notes in these large chords, but because this is a fast, rhythmic piece, I had a lot of trouble stretching quickly enough.
I cut the top E in the left hand in both chords because E is doubled in the right hand and because it occurs in the middle of the entire chord. Unless an audience member has an incredible ear and can hear every single note in a chord, no one would notice. No one has noticed…or at least they’ve never told me.
I hope these tips help my fellow small-handed pianists!
From these, you can see how important a combination of technique and music theory knowledge is important to our success as musicians. If you’d like to explore these ideas deeper with me, check out my lessons page.
If you’d like to practice and learn more relaxed and comfortable technique, I highly recommend Josh Wright’s ProPractice Course. He includes tutorials for all levels of technique and repertoire and is constantly adding more content. There’s also a helpful and supportive Facebook community that goes along with this (I hang out there too!).
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Until next time, may your piano technique and practice sessions stay happy, healthy, full of ease, and free of pain.