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Discover The Genius of Bach's Keyboard Works

Discover The Genius of Bach's Keyboard Works

A thorough introduction to Bach's keyboard music, available now for free.

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So, I don't have small hands. They're not enormous either, but I can reach most 10ths comfortably (some more easily than others; minor 10ths are fine, but major 10ths like D to F# I can stretch but I can't play it solid in a musical context).

But, I do have to play music that requires spans bigger than I can reach (Rachmaninoff, but Franck is actually worse)! So, by analogy, I can relate to your experience if you have small hands and are trying to deal with intervals that are slightly too large for you. 

Here are 5 tips for playing piano with small hands so you can conquer your repertoire more efficiently.


#1: Breaking or rolling the chord

The first thing to know is, there's never any shame in breaking a chord. 

Usually this is done by catching the lower note with the pedal and in one continuous motion, moving to play the rest of the chord solid. 

But, depending on the context, you might also find it nicer to roll a chord, or play the bottom notes as a chord and the top broken. Note that Rachmaninoff, who could definitely reach the LH chords at the beginning of his 2nd Concerto, nonetheless broke them for musical effect.

#2: Stretching small hands

For octaves, let me just ask you: can you reach an octave? 

If you can't even stretch an octave, I'm sorry to say that repertoire that a great deal of repertoire will be off limits. 

Assuming you can play an octave, even if it's a stretch, the most important principle to follow is what Garrick Ohlsson calls the "relaxation response." He talks about this in multiple lessons, including (albeit in a different context) at the beginning of his lesson on touch. 

His hands are huge, obviously, but the principle still applies in the context of playing octaves with small hands: only stretch the fingers to the span of an octave right at the moment of attack, but keep the fingers more comfortably contracted before and immediately after you play the octave. This can even be true if you need to hold an octave, although some stretching still needs to occur. 

But you no longer need to bear down on the keys, and you can just straddle the octave and use the 1st and 5th fingers as stabilizing balance points. In other words, you should develop a reflex where you release tension the moment you've struck the key, even for repeated octaves: practice slowly, and get used to spring-boarding out of the keys and let the muscles disengage slightly in between octaves. 

#3: Pedaling

Related to this last point is pedal. The pedal is your friend, more so than folks with bigger hands. 

And, it's for reasons again discussed by Garrick Ohlsson (again, doesn't matter that he has big hands, the principle still applies) in his Rach 3 course (go to 18:30 here). He's talking about a huge moment where the left hand has to play lots of big chords and leap around. 

His point is: if the pedal is down, the moment you release from the keys you can relax the hand while the sound continues.

#4: Jumping

As for jumps, this is everyone's problem, not just small-handed pianists. But obviously the jumps are longer relative to the size of your hand. 

My line on jumps is this: a two or three octave leap might seem wide relative to your fingers (anyone's fingers), but relative to your arms, it's not far at all. You can probably lean forward and spread your arms out to touch both extremes of the keyboard with no problem. 

The keyboard ain't that big compared to our bodies. It's not like you're actually jumping long distances here. 

So, what to do then? 

Rather than thinking of a leap as this wide chasm you have to jump across, fearing for you life while in mid air, think instead of your forearm moving laterally like a windshield wiper from your elbow. Look how quickly and easily you can cover wide spans back and forth. 

So, if you approach jumps not as simply picking up the forearm and carrying over laterally to the left or the right, suddenly the jump shrinks and you'll feel much better about at least getting close to your target. Within that framework, then it's just a matter of practicing so, once your arm carries you within range of the note, you develop the muscle memory to stick the landing. And again, in mid air, you shouldn't be keeping your hand spread out during the jump.

#5: The “imaginary middle”

Asiya Korepanova talks about this exact point in her tonebase lesson on La Campanella (the mother of all jumpy pieces). Starting around 3:10, she talks about occupying an "imaginary middle", so you're looking at the jump from the perspective of your arm and elbow and not your hand.


As you can see, there are several workarounds approaching your piano repertoire while having small hands.

If this post helped you in any way, let us know!

Shoot us a DM on Instagram at @tonebasepiano, we’d love to hear your thoughts :)

Or, feel free to click this link to check out our in-depth courses on piano, taught by artists including Grammy winning pianists and professors from schools such as Juilliard, Curtis, and more.

Happy playing!

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