Want to become a better pianist?
Grow your hands!
A transcript printed in Musical America of an address to the 1909 New York State Teacher’s Convention claims that certain people were at a distinct physiological disadvantage when playing the piano, so much so, that they should have their own separate literature.
[Kate S. Chittenden, “Piano Repertoire for Small-Handed Performers,” Musical America, Vol. 10 No. 9 (10 July 1909): 18.]
Harriette Brower also wrote in Musical America about the value of octave studies at the keyboard for aiding students with small hands.
[Harriette Brower, “Value of Octave Study to the Piano Student,” Musical America, Vol. 17 No. 19 (15 March 1913): 26.]
For many, hand size, apparently, did matter. Of course having small hands is a hindrance to performing certain repertoire with wide intervals. But beyond anatomy, the perception that small-handed people were impeded from becoming virtuosos was linked to the large hands of master performers of the previous generation.
In a satirical piece entitled “Hands, Insanus omnis faere credit ceteros [Every madman thinks all others insane],” a certain Dr. Legs and Dr. Body praised the hand size and strength of Franz Liszt over the “sad” hands of Chopin.
[Anon., “Hands. Insanus omnis faere credit ceteros,” The Musical World, Vol. 56 No. 19 (11 May 1878): 318.]
Liszt’s “square, large hand” with “longer, knotted fingers” and “iron knuckles” was, according to the doctors, the preferred anatomy for the “command of learned music.”
Along with the hands of Liszt, those of Anton Rubinstein were also admired. A description of the latter was given in a translation of Eugen Zabel’s contribution to the Berlin National-Zeitung.
Zabel continued by declaring Rubinstein’s hands a rarity in size and strength, even bordering on animalistic.
[Rosa Newmarch, “Rubinstein’s Hand,” The Musician, Vol. 2 No. 28 (17 November 1897): 29-31.]
In fact, hands described as square, wide, and powerful, like those of Liszt and Rubinstein reinforced the benefits of having large hands at the piano. By contrast, this view implied that small hands could prevent one from attaining true piano mastery.
To remedy this limitation, physical exercises were often given by teachers and specialists. With consistent training, it was believed that small hands could in fact, grow. A 1912 advertisement from a “hand specialist” named Burnett Jordan visually demonstrated the benefits of such specialized training.
[Musical America, Vol. 16 No. 23 (12 October 1912): 99.]
Jordan’s teacher, the German hand-training specialist Woldemar Schnee, traveled to America for several extended residencies in 1914 and again, in 1922. With looming Brahmsian features, Schnee reinforced the advantages of having large hands like Rubinstein and Liszt, and promised to enlarge the hands of those less pianistically endowed.
[Musical America, Vol. 37 No. 5 (25 November 1922): 44]
[H. F. P., “Lending Size and Strength to the Hands of the Pianist,” Musical America, Vol. 19 No. 17 (28 February 1914): 29.]
Schnee’s technique—“stretching the skin” by “pulling the thumb and the fifth finger in opposite directions”—was admittedly painful, but not enough to deter pianists from seeking out his services in hopes of, quite literally, expanding their abilities.
While prevalent historically, the idea of small hands as wholly detrimental to great piano playing is a generally outdated concept, thanks to artists like Alicia de Larrocha, Vladimir Ashkenazy, and Daniel Barenboim (maxing out his reach at the 9th). Some artists, like the fantastic music-comedy duo Igudesman and Joo, have even found a way to satirize this stereotype. (Don’t pass up viewing this…)
RIPM search tip: For more information on “small-hand” repertoire and articles discussing hand size and piano technique, search for “small hands” in both the Retrospective Index, and in the e-Library of Music Periodicals.