The standard piano keyboard is too big for 87 per cent of women and 25 per cent of men. But how did pianos end up this size? Is it time we came up with an alternative?
Caroline Criado Perez, narrating: I’m going to start this episode by playing you some data. This is how big my hands are.
[Sound effect of two musical notes, C4 and then D5]
Caroline Criado Perez, narrating: That’s 6.8 inches measured from my wrist to the top of my middle finger. And this is the size of the average female hand.
[Sound effect of two musical notes, C4 and then D5]
Caroline Criado Perez, narrating: Sounds pretty similar, doesn’t it? That’s because the average female hand size is also 6.8 inches. Now, let’s hear what the average man’s hand sounds like.
[Sound effect of two musical notes, C4 and then E5]
Caroline Criado Perez, narrating: That’s a bit of a bigger interval. In fact, the average male hand is 7.6 inches, which is almost an inch bigger. And this difference in size is a bit of an issue for women, because as I explored in my book, Invisible Women, the world has been generally designed for male bodies. And that includes male hands, which means that all sorts of things from hand tools, to handles, to bottles, to smartphones are just too big for women. Which, speaking as a woman, is kind of annoying. So in this episode, we’re going to look at why it matters that the male hand is seen as a neutral universal hand. And we’re going to do that by looking at pianos.
First, let me give you some context. If we look at piano students, girls outnumber boys. Women are also more likely to become piano teachers than men. But when it comes to professional concert pianists, men dominate. Major performing and recording artists over the last 100 years have overwhelmingly been male. Men are overrepresented in pretty much any list of best contemporary pianists you care to look at. Men have made up around 80% of prize winners in international piano competitions over the past 50 years. In 2010, Yulianna Avdeeva made headlines when she became the first woman to win the international Frédéric Chopin competition in 45 years. Two women have won the prestigious Leeds competition in its 59 years, and just one has won the International Tchaikovsky Competition.
So what’s going on here. Are female pianists just not as good as male pianists? Are judges prejudiced against female pianists? Or what if pianos are just too big for the average woman’s hand?
I’m Caroline Criado Perez. And this is Visible Women, my weekly podcast from Tortoise, investigating how we finally fix a world designed for men. This week we’re investigating how a keyboard that is too large for 87% of women’s hands came to be the standard piano size. And we’re finding out what we can do about it.
Tiffany Goff: I know that there are much bigger problems facing humanity than whether we have multiple piano sizes, you know, safety, basic healthcare, things like that. But the arts are important too.
Caroline, narrating: This is Tiffany Goff.
Tiffany: It just seems like such an enormous oversight to leave out more than half of the population from an activity like making music that gives human life so much meaning. That’s my big soapbox, my little soapbox.
Caroline, narrating: You probably won’t be surprised to hear that Tiffany’s a musician.
Tiffany: I play the piano, I’m a composer and I teach piano ages 4 to 18. I was a composer with The Cleveland Playhouse for a few seasons, and I scored several of their shows.
Caroline, narrating: I first came across her in a YouTube video she recorded in 2013.
Tiffany, in YouTube video: Suddenly very nervous. Okay. [Doorbell rings]
Caroline, narrating: In the video, she walks into someone’s house and sits down at their piano.
Tiffany, in YouTube video: Wait a minute. [Begins to cry]
Caroline, narrating: Tiffany is crying because she’s about to turn 25, and this is the first time she has sat down at a keyboard that actually fits her hands.
Tiffany, in YouTube video: Just seeing what it looks like, never mind playing it. [plays a musical scale]
Caroline, narrating: She started playing piano when she was just a baby.
Tiffany: We had a piano in the house and it was apparently my favourite toy. My parents couldn’t get me away from it. My mother had apparently gotten real tired of holding me at the piano. I wanted to be there a solid hour every day, even as a baby. I just loved the sound. My father’s solution was to bring a high chair home that they could just plop me in and leave me there. And go do their thing for about an hour, come back when I was done.
Caroline, narrating: Her obsession with the piano continued as she got older, but as she improved and began to play more ambitious pieces, Tiffany started running into difficulties.
Tiffany: So I remember a lot of frustration, honestly. And it was in part due to the fact that I was developing musically a lot faster than I was developing as a pianist.
Caroline, narrating: Tiffany was coming up against the limits of her hands.
Tiffany: I can reach some ninths. So when we talk about a pianist having small hands, generally we’re talking about small hands for a pianist. So this would be pretty much a minimum of a 10th for someone who plays at a high level, I can reach some ninths.
Caroline, narrating: A study from 2015 found that the average female pianist’s hand span, that’s the measurement between your thumb and fifth finger, is 7.9 inches, while the average male hand span is 8.9 inches. On a standard keyboard, a ninth, that’s a stretch of nine white notes, is also 7.9 inches. As in it’s the full hand span of the average female pianist. A 10th is 8.8 inches. So it’s not really surprising that one study found that over 80% of female pianists can barely stretch to a 10th at all. And the same number can’t play a ninth without serious discomfort. By the way, some people call digital pianos keyboards, but when I say keyboard what I’m referring to is the black and white keys on any piano, digital or otherwise. Like many pianists with female sized hands, Tiffany has found ways around the mismatch between the size of her hands and the size of the keyboard.
Tiffany: It wasn’t something that was talked about a whole lot. It was just sort of taken as a matter of course, you know, by my teachers that we would need to negotiate the space of the instrument. That we would need to be judicious in the repertoire that we chose. That there would be a lot of fudging and rearranging of notes, maybe dropping a few. You have to come up with some very creative gymnastics for your hands to negotiate certain passages. And that was just how I played.
Caroline, narrating: It was while Tiffany was studying at the Cleveland Institute of Music that she first heard about pianos with differently sized keyboards.
Tiffany: I knew that there were a couple of concert pianists who had pianos custom built with narrow keys. And I had vaguely heard of this company Steinbuhler in the US that was manufacturing keyboards.
Caroline, narrating: Together with pianist Christopher Donison, David Steinbuhler has developed a method for retrofitting acoustic pianos with keyboards that have narrower keys. This is more complicated than it sounds because when you hit a key on an acoustic piano, the sound is made by a hammer hitting strings. And when you start moving the keys around, they can get out of sync with the strings. So you need to do some clever engineering to make it all work. This isn’t an issue in digital keyboards because the sound is produced, well, digitally. There are no hammers to hit. An octave on a standard keyboard, so that’s a stretch of eight white notes is 6.5 inches. Steinbuhler can retrofit keyboards that range from a six inch octave all the way down to a four inch octave developed for children.
Tiffany: I think I only made the decision to go visit after having trouble with a couple of performances. I was just struggling a little bit and starting to suspect that maybe a different instrument would resolve a lot of my issues.
Caroline, narrating: So Tiffany decided to drive from Cleveland, Ohio, to a town called Titusville, in the next state over.
Tiffany: It’s a little town in Pennsylvania. It was a nice little road trip and I went to David’s home, David Steinbuhler, to play his piano. He has a gorgeous grand piano with multiple size keyboards and he picked the one correctly. He correctly picked the size that he thought I would like.
Caroline, narrating: As soon as she put her hands on the keyboard, Tiffany felt different.
Tiffany, in YouTube video: Oh geez, my hands look enormous.
Tiffany: I think the reason why I got so emotional just looking at my hands on the keys for the first time, was seeing the disparity between what my hands looked like on the keys in my head. And, you know, the way they look in my head is the way everyone else’s hands look on the keyboard, very natural and no tension versus what I was seeing on the big pianos. And when I played David’s piano for the first time that disparity just kind of dissolved.
Caroline: And how did that feel seeing that disparity dissolve?
Tiffany: Yeah, it was completely overwhelming. I don’t have another word for it. It was a very important moment in my life.
Caroline: So did you play a piece or two or three? Did you play some pieces and…
Tiffany: I sat there the entire day, I got a motel and came back the next day.
Caroline: Oh, wow.
Tiffany: Yeah, I’m getting this instrument. The second I saw it. I didn’t even touch it yet, I knew that this was going to be my instrument.
Caroline, narrating: It took her a couple of years to actually get hold of one though. At the moment, these keyboards still have to be made by hand so they don’t come cheap and there’s a long wait time. But then Tiffany had a stroke of luck.
Tiffany: I had graduated but I was still hanging around the Institute. And David Steinbuhler had this programme, I think still does, where he loans out upright pianos to universities, to conservatoires, to programmes so that they can try it out for maybe a semester or six months or something like that. And there happened to be one in one of the larger practice rooms in the basement of the Institute. And it happened to be my size and I just, the moment I found out it was there, I called David and said, “Hey listen, instead of waiting a couple of years for this piano to be custom built, can I just buy this one it’s right here?” And he said, “Yes.” Thank you, David, if you’re listening.
Caroline, narrating: This exchange with Tiffany got me thinking, I only knew about pianos with narrower keyboards from researching my book, Invisible Women. Loads of pianists I’ve spoken to just have no idea these pianos exist at all. This conservatoire loan programme seemed to be a brilliant solution, addressing both the accessibility and the awareness issue at a single stroke. I got on the phone with producer Hannah. It was time for a Visible Women intervention.
Hannah: I did think it was really interesting that Tiffany said that the DS foundation was loaning these pianos to conservatoires. It seems like quite a nice thing to do to make sure that these pianos are getting out in the world.
Caroline: Yeah. And I think also a really useful way of, kind of spreading the word. So I think it’d be really interesting to find out, do any British conservatoires have any of these pianos? And if they don’t, would they accept a loan? Would they be kind enough to accept? And if they don’t want one, why not? Who would say no to a free piano? I wouldn’t say no to a free piano.
Hannah: If it’s free and they just have to pay for shipping, then they might as well try it.
Caroline: Right. There doesn’t seem to be a downside here to me.
Hannah: Yeah. And a keyboard that might make them better musicians, isn’t that what conservatoires are for?
Caroline: Right. Exactly, Hannah! Exactly.
Hannah: So I know there’s Trinity and Guildhall and a few in London.
Caroline: Yeah, so and I think there’s also the Royal Northern College of music. And there’s wonderful…
Caroline, narrating: I really hope the conservatoires will be up for this because Tiffany’s experience suggests that it’s well worth trying to solve this problem.
Tiffany: There are a lot of benefits to playing these instruments, physical and mental, but also musical. The travel distance between the keys is smaller, that means that you can play faster. There’s less wasted movement so less fatigue, greater stamina, decrease in the potential for pain, decrease in the potential for injury. The small keys have meant that I can learn quickly. I’m not constantly being derailed by errors. Sight reading happens very smoothly. I can memorise music in a fraction of the time. This is how music should be done and is done by people with large hands. There shouldn’t be a whole bunch of roadblocks in your way. The big thing for me besides the mental thing is the musical thing. I have a much greater range of repertoire available to me, orders of magnitude, greater.
Caroline, narrating: But the biggest impact has been on her work as a composer.
Tiffany: As a musician, you know musicians make a lot of music in our heads all day, sometimes all night too. And an instrument is supposed to be a very natural extension of that mental process. And having an instrument that causes problems instead of relieving them is just bananas. So it’s been a really big deal to be able to ‘think’ the music and have it just happen as opposed to having to reserve a big chunk of that thought for the actual instrument.
Caroline, narrating: Tiffany still does play on the larger standard keyboard quite often, because that’s still the keyboard that’s usually available at concert halls and competitions. So how does she find it moving between them?
Caroline: Pianists who haven’t tried the smaller size keyboard always raise whenever I mention the idea of smaller keyboards to them is, ‘but what about when you go to a concert hall that’s got a standard size keyboard. If you’ve been playing on a small size keyboard, isn’t that an issue?’ And I just wondered what your experience has been.
Tiffany: Yeah, it’s a very logical concern, but what actually ends up happening is the smaller keyboard will teach your hands how to play in a healthy way. It’ll help you learn the piece more quickly and more effectively. It’s really not an issue to scale up. So you’ll have a better performance. That’s been my experience, is that I have better performances after I’ve studied music on my smaller piano at home.
Caroline, narrating: To illustrate how easy it is to adjust, Tiffany tells me about the time she went to the Dallas International Piano Festival, which is the only international competition to offer a choice of keyboard sizes.
Tiffany: And that year there was a pianist who actually was playing one size smaller for the first time. And she described it as just playing the piano but with no tension. And she tried it for the first time the day before and ended up taking home a prize.
Caroline, narrating: It seems pretty clear to me that the piano world’s insistence on having a single size of keyboard to cater to the entire spectrum of human hands is kind of ludicrous, especially since there is a proven alternative. So while we were waiting to see if the UK’s major conservatoires would be magnanimous enough to accept a free piano, Hannah decided to go direct to the source.
Hannah: So I’m just in the Yamaha Piano Store in Soho, and you can probably hear a guy tuning something up in the background. I just asked them if they ever sell any pianos with narrower keys. I spoke to the guy who’s doing the tuning and someone who’s on the sales team and they were both kind of like, no, what’s that? Which I thought was really interesting. It really seems like it’s not a commonly known about thing even amongst piano professionals.
Caroline, narrating: So how did we end up here, with seemingly enormous-handed men the only ones truly being catered for?
Caroline: When did the piano first evolve? Do we know when the first piano was made?
Geoffrey Govier: Yes, it’s really at the end of the 17th century, although the date which everybody would give you is 1709, which is a little later. But that’s when the description of it was then, but obviously it was made…
Caroline, narrating: This is Dr. Geoffrey Govier.
Geoffrey: I am a professor of fortepiano at the Royal College of Music. And I play the fortepiano. And what the fortepiano is really any version of the piano that exists from its origins up until the modern piano.
Caroline, narrating: Fortepiano literally means ‘loud soft’ in Italian.
Geoffrey: And the significance of it was that you could play loudly and quietly just by the difference in the touch that you apply to the keyboard. Unlike a harpsichord where you’d have to engage various registers in order to be able to get more volume.
Caroline, narrating: This ability to easily move from loud to quiet became really important towards the end of the 18th century.
Geoffrey: Because that’s the point when music has this move towards the classical period, which contrasts loud and quiet sections within the same movement. And therefore, the need to be able to move from loud to quiet becomes much more essential.
Caroline, narrating: Geoffrey explains that when fortepianos first emerged, the keyboards were not at all standardised.
Geoffrey: They were incredibly variable and so the notion of having one exactly the same as everybody else’s would be completely ridiculous. I mean it would just be absurd. But of course, nowadays that is very much not the case.
Caroline: And did keyboard sizes vary?
Geoffrey: They varied in many ways, actually yes, they varied in terms of the stretch, which is of course the major issue for people playing the modern piano today. But also, the bit of the white note in front of the black notes, if you see what I mean? It was quite a bit shorter actually a lot of the time, and so that’s one thing. The other thing is the notes were rounded on the side, so sliding up in between them is much easier certainly in the 18th century. But much more significantly in terms of the stretch is that the black notes or the equivalent of the black notes, were much lower. And so it’s easier to be able to stretch without pushing them down. And so I find that there are stretches that I can do on an early 19th century piano that I can’t do on a Steinway . And I’ve got relatively big hands, but even so because the black notes get in the way, you sort of push other things down at the same time.
Caroline, narrating: Because of this, Geoffrey says he’s very used to moving between different sized keyboards, as indeed the composers of the time like Mozart and Beethoven would have been.
Caroline: So you are switching between the two. Do you have any difficulty with that when you’re playing pieces? Do you find your fingers are in the wrong place or anything?
Geoffrey: Well, funnily enough, that’s the one thing that is not a problem actually. Because the instruments historically were very variable in terms of the keyboard size, altering to the keyboard size is not a problem because you just are used to just adjusting to whatever the instrument size is.
Caroline, narrating: What we now think of as the piano, the standard modern piano, started to emerge around the mid to late 1800s.
Geoffrey: And it becomes completely recognisable as being a modern piano from the late 1860s. Certainly by 1880 then the instrument becomes very much more regular. Certainly in terms of the keyboard size, it’s much more regular and it’s quite big.
Caroline, narrating: But why? Why did the keyboard become so big? I asked Patricia to look into it.
[voice note notification sound]
Patricia: I’ve not ever investigated pianos before, but I’ll see what I can do.
Caroline, narrating: I’ll let you know what she found later. I also asked Hannah how she was getting on with her conservatoire mission.
[voice note notification sound]
Hannah: Hello. So I have tried Royal Academy, Trinity, Guildhall, Royal Northern College of Music, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and Leeds Conservatoire. Most of them didn’t pick up, but a couple did and seemed fairly interested maybe. So I’m going to send them an email and kind of follow up.
Hannah: Third floor.
Caroline, narrating: While we waited for the conservatoires to get back to her, Hannah and I went on a real life quest.
Caroline: So I’m very intrigued. I wonder if I will particularly notice a difference…
Caroline, narrating: In the UK, pianos with narrower keyboards are pretty rare. There’s only one person who’s making them here. A guy called Clive Pinkham, and he’s retiring soon. We could only find two in London.
Miguel de Blas: Hello, hi!
Caroline, narrating: But luckily the owner of one of them very kindly allowed two strange women to turn up at his house and play his pianos.
Miguel: My name is Miguel de Blas, originally from Spain, from Madrid. I’m a chemist by training and I work in the pharmaceutical industry, but I’m also a piano player. I’m a pianist, amateur pianist.
Caroline, narrating: Miguel tells us that when he was younger, he dreamed of being a professional musician. He studied at a conservatoire in his late teens.
Miguel: One of the limitations I always had in the conservatoire when I was learning the piano was that I saw that the big repertoire, like the Schumann, and especially Liszt, and Rachmaninoff were very stretchy. And I could never like, well, I could reach but I felt the tension all the time.
Caroline, narrating: This is because Miguel, like Tiffany, and like 25% of men and about 87% of women has what are considered small hands for a pianist.
Caroline: Can I see….
Miguel: Yeah. Like about 20… Yeah,
Caroline: Oh, they’re still bigger than mine
Miguel: But my hand span is about the same as yours.
Caroline, narrating: By the way, my hand span is seven inches from thumb to fifth finger, which is almost an inch smaller than the average even for a female pianist. According to a 2015 study, this makes my hand too small to play even an octave comfortably. Miguel was seven years into his 10 year degree at the conservatoire when he finally gave up on his dream of becoming a professional pianist.
Miguel: And actually one of the things that stopped me from keeping trying was my hand span because I noticed that yes, I could play Mozart, I could play Bach, I could play early Beethoven. But when it came to late romantic repertoire, Liszt and Rachmaninoff for example, I was very limited. It was a physical limitation.
Caroline: How does that make you feel? That would make me feel really angry.
Miguel: I was very angry. I was very angry.
Caroline, narrating: In fact, Miguel was so angry that he simply stopped playing the piano altogether – for 25 years. But a few years ago he decided to pick it up again, just for fun. And he found himself wondering…
Miguel: Don’t they make smaller keyboards? Something that you might expect with this day and age of everything being ergonomic and adapted.
Caroline, narrating: A bit of research led him, like Tiffany, to David Steinbuhler.
Miguel: And then I tried to get a piano retrofitted, but it was very expensive. So I was about to give up and then there was a lady…
Caroline, narrating: Miguel came across someone who already had a keyboard retrofitted and could no longer use it. So he bought it off her. And now he’s going to show it to us.
[Miguel plays Chopin]
Miguel: So you see you can have the chord inside your hand. Whereas when you play on the standard one…
Caroline, narrating: Miguel swivels round to try the same piece on the standard keyboard.
[Miguel plays Chopin]
Miguel: You see that I missed one of the notes there?
Miguel: Because it was too stretchy. So yes, you can with a lot of practice, more than people with bigger hands, you can manage and you can do things. But of course, it’s going to take you longer. It’s going to take you more effort and you will be more prone to injury because…
Caroline, narrating: Inevitably, Hannah made me have a go too.
Hannah: Why don’t you try the larger piano first?
Caroline: Okay, so.
[Caroline plays Beethoven]
Caroline, narrating: This is Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. It’s one of my favourite pieces. It’s also my nemesis.
Caroline: That’s really difficult to stretch, that, and I can’t actually do it. I can see what you mean because I’m already aching on my forearm.
Caroline, narrating: I then tried playing the same piece on Miguel’s smaller keyboard, which has a six inch octave rather than the usual 6.5 inch octave.
[Caroline plays Beethoven]
Caroline: It is actually much easier. Because that normally is really hard. I can do it quite easily.
[Continues to play]
Oh my God, so that was the chord that I was just really struggling with and I can play it. It’s still a stretch, but I can play it pretty easily.
Caroline, narrating: The thing that’s so odd about all this, is that the so-called standard size keyboard is actually oversized for really the majority of players. Whereas, the narrower keyboard I’ve just been playing on is arguably a more universal size.
Caroline: So this is the happy medium, isn’t it? And maybe some Concert Halls that are huge could offer the oversized keyboard, which is what’s currently the standard keyboard. And then a tiny keyboard, which is the 5.5. But actually the 6 is the one that fits most people, irrespective of, not irrespective of hand size but you know, the spectrum of hand sizes.
Miguel: I agree.
Caroline: That’s the… this should be the standard keyboard.
Miguel: I think so. And it’s completely feasible from a technical point of view.
Caroline, narrating: I decided to check in with Patricia to see how she’d got on with getting to the bottom of how this oversized keyboard came to be the standard size keyboard.
Patricia: So from what I understand, 1700s, pianos had quite small keys because they were sort of carried over from organs and clavichords. And then in the mid to late 19th century, pianos did get bigger. I’ve written down five different theories for why that happened and some of them overlap. One is the development of a new kind of way of making the sound, which was cross stringing. That takes up more space within the piano, so they got a bit bigger and you need bigger keys in order to accommodate that. The most important one probably or the one that feels most realistic to me is that they needed them to go from domestic piano playing, often meant by women, middle and upper class women in particular, to concert hall piano recitals, which became big at the time. And then when you get to recitals, concert halls, that’s all men.
Caroline: Yeah. That’s really interesting.
Patricia: So there are theories that that’s why the pianos got bigger as well. Most experts kind of aren’t sure about that, but I think it’s definitely an interesting element of it all.
Caroline: Yeah. I think that’s a pretty compelling argument that if it was mainly men playing and needing to play this big sound that they catered to them.
Patricia: So that all brings us to Franz Liszt, who’s that Hungarian composer. Lots of people have complained to us that they can’t play his tunes because of how big his hands were. He’s actually credited with being one of the first people, if not the first to come up with the idea of a modern piano recital. So essentially a piano concert. I’ve read some rumours that he was friends with a lot of piano manufacturers, so he lobbied for having bigger keys because he had big hands. A few of the experts we’ve spoken to have said that they think he could have been factored in, but actually you do need a bigger piano to, at the time at least you needed a bigger piano to fill the acoustics of a room. So it’s not all on him. Other stuff that happened, people getting larger was one theory. So they made bigger keys, not that large but that was a theory that came up.
Caroline: I mean, people or men? I guess women also got larger, but we are still not as large as the keyboard is. So I’m not sure about that theory.
Patricia: Yeah. I’m not sure about that one either. And then finally I think all of this, whatever exactly happened we may not know, but it coincided with industrialisation. And so at that point you need to have a standard size for a piano. So they went from being from wood to being cast iron, which was better acoustically for lots of technical reasons that I won’t go into. But also because it could be standardised and it could be made. So at some point during all of those overlapping things, it got fixed in as a size. So I guess what’s interesting about all of this to me, is why can’t we change it now when we know that smaller keys can work on pianos. And we know that we’ve got all sorts of solutions to make sure that sound can fill halls.
Caroline: Yeah. That’s really interesting.
Patricia: And some people are getting injured and that people are really struggling to play. And that it’s limiting people from reaching their full musical potential.
Caroline, narrating: We may never get to the bottom of how exactly we ended up with this standard keyboard. But one thing we can be sure of is that it is disadvantaging a lot of pianists. So how can we fix this?
Rhonda Boyle: Okay. I’m Rhonda, from Melbourne Australia. I coordinate the PASK network. It’s an informal network of pianists and others who are interested in change in piano keyboard sizes.
Caroline, narrating: Rhonda Boyle has been playing the piano for most of her life.
Caroline: And did you enjoy it straight away?
Rhonda: I did. I still remember my teacher as an old lady then and I would be sitting waiting for my lesson, and there would be another girl there a bit older than me who had these really long, beautiful hands. And she’d be playing Debussy’s La Cathedrale Engloutie, The Engulfed Cathedral, with big stretches. And my teacher would turn around to me and say, “Well, girlie you’ll never be able to play that.”
Caroline, narrating: For decades, Rhonda did simply accept that there were loads of pieces she just would never be able to play. But about 15 years ago, she was doing some research online about tips for pianists with small hands and she came across David Steinbuhler, the man who makes the narrow keyboards. She knew straight away that she wanted one of these pianos with narrower keys. And eventually she managed to get hold of one.
Caroline: So how did it feel playing the narrower keyboard for the first time?
Rhonda: Well, quite amazing obviously.
Caroline, narrating: But Rhonda couldn’t stop thinking about all the other pianists who could benefit from a narrower keyboard, who probably didn’t even know such a thing existed. And so like all Visible Women heroines, she started collecting data. And in fact, nearly all the data you’ve heard in this episode so far has been from her research.
Rhonda: That started really 2009 doing research. And that, I think I ended up doing four different papers.
Caroline, narrating: Rhonda took her data to a conference and there she met a piano teacher called Erica Booker. They decided to team up.
Rhonda: She came up to me afterwards and said, “Look, let’s work together on this to change the world.”
Caroline, narrating: It wasn’t long before they were roaming Australia armed with a tape measure.
Rhonda: Basically, for about two years we were collecting data wherever we could. Any pianist we’d meet at all these conferences and seminars or if we’d been out for dinner and you’d meet a pianist, I’d have a tape measure in my handbag, and I’d get the data. So we built all that up over a couple of years.
Caroline, narrating: Their data confirmed previous findings about the average one inch difference between men and women’s hands.
Rhonda: Found a bit of an ethnic difference too between Asians and Caucasians, about a quarter of an inch for both males and females.
Caroline, narrating: And it was this hand span data that proved that the standard keyboard was simply too big for the vast majority of women, and a sizable chunk of men too.
Rhonda: 87% of women generally have hands that are too small for the conventional keyboard and about 25% of men, which is not insignificant. And that’s a fairly conservative benchmark.
Caroline, narrating: A few years later, Rhonda’s data collection exercise had grown into a full on campaign. She set up PASK, Pianists for Alternatively Sized Keyboards, together with co-conspirators Erica Booker and Dr. Carol Leone, the Chair of Piano Studies at Meadow School of the Arts in Texas. They soon launched a petition aimed at piano manufacturers.
Rhonda: The long term goal is for manufacturers in general of acoustic and digital to provide a choice in keyboard size in new pianos or keyboards.
Caroline, narrating: But it’s fair to say things haven’t really been going that well.
Rhonda: A lot of us have had many discussions with manufacturers. Generally they would be aware of the movement. They’re generally not inclined to do anything at this stage.
Caroline, narrating: Manufacturers have told Rhonda that they don’t make differently sized keyboards because the demand simply isn’t there, but Rhonda isn’t buying it. And when I spoke to Tiffany about this, she pointed out that they’re looking at it all wrong.
Tiffany: There is a sort of accepted culture in classical piano. And I did experience this from a very young age, asking is this person’s hand too small to play the piano? Should we be discouraging this person from pursuing music at a professional or just a very high level? And it’s absolutely the wrong question. The instrument is a tool, instrument is a synonym for tool. So the question we should be asking is, is this piano too big for this individual? And if the answer is yes, then that individual should absolutely have an instrument of a suitable size. And you see this in other instruments, you know a violin will go all the way down to one sixteenth size for the itty bitty violinists who are just starting out. And their instruments will scale up as they grow so that they learn to play in a healthy ergonomic way.
Caroline, narrating: Fun fact, a recent survey of university piano students found that 75% wished they had larger hands. It’s a bit of a catch 22, manufacturers say they don’t want to make pianos with narrow keyboards because there’s no demand. But as Geoffrey, our Royal College professor points out.
Geoffrey: The problem is it would be very popular, once it was popular. And actually I think if it was popular and it was regularly available, I think it would be almost 50/50 as to what people played. But the problem is that it’s not there.
Caroline, narrating: To get it there, someone is going to have to be brave and take the first step. This is something Rhonda is now trying to make happen in her role as one of the directors of the DS Standard Foundation, which is the organisation that loans out the keyboards to conservatoires in the US. Unfortunately, she encountered a problem. It turns out that getting people to accept a free piano is not as easy as you might think.
Rhonda: It’s actually surprising though, you offer them a free loan of a keyboard for 12 months after which time we hope they would purchase it, or else, the foundation will move it on somewhere else. But there’s still resistance within those institutions and one person might be keen and then others say, oh no, I don’t think it’s a good idea because what’s the point? Because the students have to play the big keyboard when they leave university. Or sometimes the technicians don’t like the idea because they think, oh you know, it compromises the whole piano. It’s focusing on the perfect instrument forgetting about the client.
Caroline, narrating: Tiffany thinks we have an attitude problem.
Tiffany: It’s a culture that’s steeped very heavily in tradition. And there is this sort of stigma, I suppose. This idea of a practice harder culture. Just if you’re struggling with something you just need to go practice. And it is often true, a lot of repertoire for piano is very demanding both technically and musically. But in a lot of cases, there is just no amount of practice that can make a struggle sound good. And one of those cases is when the instrument is just too massive.
Caroline, narrating: The thing that’s really stupid about all this? It turns out that actually quite a few well known male pianists have preferred playing on smaller keyboards.
Tiffany: The most famous example is Joseph Hoffman who had a Steinway piano custom built for him. Steinway never wanted this information to get out and it’s not clear what happened to the piano after Hoffman’s death. It’s quite possible that it was destroyed. There’s a little bit of ambiguity there. Daniel Barenboim currently plays on a Steinway that was custom built for him as well. And the interesting takeaway is that a lot of this has been kept really hush-hush.
Caroline, narrating: While we wait for the piano world to admit their forbidden love for narrow keyboards, Rhonda has a cunning plan.
Rhonda: Our major focus at the moment is encouraging change from the digital keyboard industry, the kind of other world of what we call gig pianists who generally are non-classical pianists who take keyboards with them. And they’re probably less concerned about tradition and that sort of thing.
Caroline: Do you feel optimistic? Do you feel that things are progressing? Have you got momentum or is it still a really uphill struggle?
Rhonda: Overall, I think there is momentum and things can just change suddenly. But I can’t predict how long it’ll take, but you only need one fairly big company to get involved. And then that will kind of change everything, I think. I just hope I see some more concrete change in my lifetime basically.
Caroline, narrating: And finally, how did Hannah get on? Is there a piano with small keys currently winging its way to one of the UK’s top music conservatoire?
[voice note notification sound]
Hannah: So I got in touch with 10 or 11, I think, of the biggest music conservatoires around the UK, quite a few of them just didn’t pick up the phone or didn’t reply to my emails, which was a shame. But of the ones that did reply, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland said on the phone they were, they were sort of interested but they were worried about swapping between the older, you know standard sized keyboards and the new keyboard, which obviously I was like ‘It’s not a problem’ but they weren’t sure. The Royal Welsh College of Music and Dance got back to me and said ‘oh we actually have a specific contract with Steinway so we can only have a limited number of non Steinway pianos which I thought was interesting. And then they said ‘as all of our students give performances on full size concert instruments. It would be of limited value within the department for anyone to spend time practising on an instrument with smaller keys.’ Which, I mean, they need to listen to this podcast really, don’t they, to fully grasp that that is not a problem. The Royal College of Music where Geoffrey works said, you know, thank you for the email, thank you for the offer, regrettably we do not feel that this is a viable option for us. And so I emailed back and said, you know, I’d love to understand why it’s not a viable option? Is it that you don’t have the space for it? Is it that you don’t want a piano with narrow keys? But they didn’t reply to me sadly.
Caroline, narrating: So that’s a grand total of zero UK conservatoire taking up the offer of a free piano. Or is it?
Hannah: And then lastly, the Royal Northern College of Music said that they had sent my email to their head piano technician and that she had some ideas on the subject. And I’m going to schedule a phone call with her to talk about that, so, you know, at least that’s promising. I think there’s at least one conservatoire that seems to, maybe interested and of course after they listen to this episode, they’ll all be interested and they will be clamouring for free pianos. So I can’t wait for that.
Caroline, narrating: Thanks for listening to this episode of Visible Women from Tortoise. This episode was written and produced by me, Caroline Criado Perez, alongside Hannah Varrall and Patricia Clarke. The executive producer is Basia Cummings. It features original music by Tom Kinsella and sound design from Sam at String Cast Media.