Jun. 26, 2016

Small Hands, Part I

Organ playing begins with the selection of repertoire, but sometimes this repertoire, depending on what's being selected, can make demands that cannot be accommodated very well by players with smaller hands or hands of average size.
The organ music of Cesar Franck, for example, is beautiful, but since he wrote music which he himself could play, and his hands were unusually large, it might not be wise to attempt to play some of his music unless or until certain stretch exercises are practiced, and maybe not even then.
The repertoire we play should always be selected with the size of our hands and our general physical build in mind.
Students sometimes ask themselves, "Are my hands big enough for playing the piano or organ at all?"
Reaching an octave is pretty much a prerequisite (photo, notice the tension in the bridge of the hand, and in the thumb -- this hand is really struggling to span an octave).
The standard width for a piano keyboard is best adapted to the average large MALE hand, the knowledge of which the industry would prefer to keep to itself; if your hands seem too small, it's not your fault; there's nothing wrong with your hands.
If you can't reach an octave comfortably, then you're generally at a bit of a disadvantage; it's not impossible however; with adults, there are stretch and flexibility exercises that can be practiced, without injury, to increase the reach on the keys (if we're talking about a child, then their hands are still growing); you can still pull it off, in spite of your small hands; this has been proven time and time again [See blog, Exercises, Part I, Small Hands, Part II].'
With one exception (Variations in C Major Op. 4, measure 236, left hand, stretch of a 9th), none of the scores posted on this web site involve stretching either hand more than an octave [See menu bar, Free Stuff]; this was kept in mind deliberately during the composition process so that this music might be made more accessible to a greater number of players, especially our young people.
An octave therefore is a good benchmark for reach; many who can only reach an octave are playing repertoire with much larger reaches however, and the secret here is learning how to "break" chords very quickly.
On the piano, using the damper pedal, the hand "pivots" on one of the middle notes of the chord, and the chord is rolled from the bottom up, lightning fast, with the pedal depressed.
Using this method, the ear usually cannot tell that the notes of the chord are not being struck simultaneously.
At the organ, of course, there's no damper pedal, and most of the time, held chords require different treatment; the ear may have to judge, like King Solomon, how to divide and distribute all the notes between the two hands so that all the notes of the chord the composer had in mind can be spanned; a note written for one hand may have to be assigned to the other hand with a change in fingering.
At times, it's conceivable that a certain note (usually the highest note in the left hand chord, or the lowest note in the right hand chord) might actually have to be taken out in order to make everything else playable; this is easier to hide when the surrounding notes are very fast and the volume is at full tilt.
Sometimes also, there might be a held note getting in the way, or maybe so many held notes, that the other moving lines aren't really audible; they're just vaguely moving; as for held notes, at times we may have to pick them up in unusual places, not hold them quite as long, and that's true in so much organ music, not just Bach; in the process, we not only get to hear more clearly what's on the page, but the other notes can become easier to reach.
In some ways a small hand is a disadvantage, but there's also tremendous advantages for small hands.
Some people have such large fingers that they can't get them between the black keys very easily; when they have to play light and fast, it's can be cumbersome, when the hand is over the black keys, to get larger fingers between them; but those with smaller hands can get between the black keys for a light action and a very effortless type of playing, for that finger work.
The truth is, there's no "ideal" hand for piano or organ playing; everyone's hands are of a different morphology, and some might be better suited than others for different types of music.
The most important part of playing is getting our hands (and feet) to perform the notes that we're hearing in our head; at certain moments we might have to "contort" our fingering and hand division a little to reach everything, or maybe change the manuscript "mentally" to get clear what's written on the page, but those with smaller hands should never give up.
In some respects, it's an advantage.
(con't in Part II)