12 Tips For Playing Piano With Small Hands


Tips For Playing Piano With Small HandsPiano is by far the most finger dependent of all instruments. Each hand needs to work in concert with one another to make beautiful music. Most pianos have a standard key width and length, so if you’re hands are small sometimes tough to play the instrument. Younger students struggle with this especially; trying to reach chords and perform octave passages.

It does help to have large hands so that you can reach certain octaves and form big chords easily. With some creativity, there are plenty of ways to play the piano with smaller sized hands. Here are 12 Tips For Playing Piano With Small Hands.

  1. Stretch Your Fingers
  2. Breaking Up Chords
  3. Omitting Notes
  4. Using A Custom Sized Keyboard
  5. Playing On The Sides Of Your Fingers
  6. Playing Higher On the Keys
  7. Flattening Out Your Fingers
  8. Choosing More Suitable Repertoire
  9. Strengthening The Fingers
  10. Varying Articulations
  11. Redistributing The Notes
  12. Never Forcing It

That list of tips is basically what I share with my students, and the results seem to be pretty effective. Next we’ll go over all of these in more detail so you can get a better understanding of how to utilize each step.

1. Stretch Your Fingers

Whether you have big or small hands, it’s important to stretch them out. Stretching your fingers gives you the fullest extension of the hands, gets the blood flowing and allows for more fluent playing. Too often I see students come into lessons with tight fingers, and if the hands are smaller it really hinders their playing ability.

My stretch protocol is pretty basic yet it’s effective. I begin with the thumb and pull it back slowly until it’s fully stretched out. Next move on to the index finger and so forth until you reach the pinkie.

After this I’ll go back to the thumb, fully extend it and drag straight up with the index and middle fingers of my other hand. Lastly I give my fingers a wiggle and shake. Repeat this method for both hands and they’ll be as stretched out as possible. If you want you can even stretch out the palms of your hands too.

2. Breaking Up Chords

Chords are probably going to be the most challenging thing for pianist to play if they have small hands. The way I teach my students to go about playing them is to break them up. This involves splitting the chords up so that one group of notes is played before the other.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you have a chord in the left hand and it’s built as C E G and B. The logical fingers would be 5, 3, 2, and 1. For a smaller hands that’s quite the stretch. This chord would have to be rolled in order to play it and land the timing of it on the downbeat (or wherever the music tells you to).

The other thing pianists could do is redistribute the fingering. Perhaps you can play the chord without rolling if you used 5, 4, 2 and 1 or even playing two notes with one finger as well. Those are just some of the possibilities, but it really depends on the hand size.

3. Omitting Notes

Outside of breaking up chords, pianists also have the option of omitting notes. Don’t just omit everything you see because it could potential ruin the harmonic structure of the piece. Using the example above we basically have a C7 chord.

The notes you absolutely need there are the root which is C and then the B. If I were to omit a note there it would likely be the G as that is the dominant.

Beyond chords there’s certain passagework that might have hard to reach areas. Octaves in particular are good spots to omit notes because it’s just a doubling of the pitch. Listen to the character of the piece and that’ll help you decide whether the pinkie or the thumb needs to be left out. Often times it’ll be the thumb that you’ll leave out, but sometimes it’ll flip.

If you’re a piano student I wouldn’t omit notes until a chordal analysis has been done on the sections you’re considering doing this. Working with a good teacher will help you determine when and when not to do this. The good thing for younger students is that as the hands grow they can start adding those omitted notes back in.

4. Using A Custom Sized Keyboard

Pianos come built in a standard size, especially with concert grands. In the past it used to be a huge issue, and unless you had a ton of money you couldn’t get a custom built size. These days pianos are available in all shapes and sizes. Some have narrower keys, others have wider keys and so forth. Some even have less octaves on them just for kids.

I would only get a piano like this if you have really young students under the age of 6. At that point their probably in preschool and not really able to play a normal size piano anyway. If they are 6 or older then I suggest just waiting and letting them grow into the instrument over time.

5. Playing On The Sides Of Your Fingers

The actual technique of playing with small hands is different than what most of us are taught. Every method book will tell you to grab a tennis ball, and use that as a form for curved fingers and so forth. The fact is that it won’t work sometimes if you can’t reach the keys right?

What I’ve found most effective sometimes is to play on the sides of your fingers. Especially when it comes to reaching those octaves pianists can lean into notes and into chords too. This might not always sound the prettiest of course, but it’s a way to get through some pieces that just aren’t catered to smaller hands.

6. Playing Higher On The Keys

The other thing small handed pianists can do is play higher on the keys. I don’t mean a higher register, but literally closer to the fall board. This is mostly useful for chord clusters, but also effective in scalar passages too.

As you run up and down the instrument you can move higher and lower along the way. This takes some serious choreography to pull off though or else the playing will sound quite jumbled.

The drawbacks of this too are the loss of speed because you’re somewhat shifting positions on the keyboard. This isn’t my favorite suggestion to make, but it does work when used right!

7. Flattening Out Your Fingers

This is almost like stretching and playing at the same time. If you ever take a look on YouTube at some of the greats playing the piano you’ll notice that they flatten their fingers considerably. This is a technical skill specific to some, but if you have small fingers it’s one of your only real options.

I still recommend playing with some curvature to the fingers. However, don’t be afraid to flatten and lower the hand for the sake of your technique looking good. With octaves flattening the hand is really helpful and it also frees you up to move around too. For some chords you can also splat them down if the notes are close enough.

8. Choosing More Suitable Repertoire

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase about Rachmaninoff having big hands. So naturally his music caters to artists who also have large hands too as he was a pianist himself. On the flip side, there’s plenty of composers who had small hands and created music more suitable for those players.

Even with hand size out of the equation, some music is just better for smaller hands. Choose your repertoire to suit your hands and not the other way around. Baroque works are really great, and anything along the Mozart and Haydn lines are great too.

In general more Romantic genre music is going to pose some real difficulties. That’s where more harmonic chords were present and more tonal liberties were taken too. For beginners the genre isn’t going to matter too much.

Piano method books are especially good at composing music that is appropriate for all hand sizes. Even as you get to the higher levels of those method books it’s still all pretty attainable. As piano students grow and develop they can begin working with broader repertoire.

If you’re an adult pianist this works the same way too. Continue sorting through method books and standard repertoire and see what fits your fingers.

9. Strengthening The Fingers

Stronger fingers have the ability to play the piano faster and with more accuracy. There’s all kinds of ways to go about strengthening the hands too. You can use hand grips like this one, use stress balls and even play with compression sleeves. I don’t really recommend those options though because there is such a thing as too strong.

If a pianist overdoes it strengthening their fingers they might end up actually hindering their playing ability. Using hand grips too much can result in lack of mobility and the finesse needed to play quick passages and make sudden dynamic transitions.

Instead, I would strengthen the fingers naturally through technique exercises, playing more repertoire and drilling certain passages. Simply running through all of your scales and rolling chords is a great example.

For students with small hands, I recommend trying interval stretches with your thumb being the base. You can perform this exercise at the beginning before hopping into your practice routine.

  • First find a simple tonic chord (C Major is fine)
  • Play the chord (C,E,G,) as normal
  • Next stretch the pinkie from G To A and play this chord (C, E, A)
  • Stretch the pinkie out an additional note and play B (C, E, B)
  • Continue that pattern until your pinkie cannot travel any further
  • Repeat this process with the ring finger, middle finger, and index fingers

What I like about this process is that you can easily play this in reverse (starting with the pinkie and stretch the thumb). Any chord the pianist is studying with can be broken this way and stretching this way strengthens the fingers considerably.

10. Varying Articulations

Trying out different articulations can help a pianist with small hands figure out what works and what doesn’t. Some passages may have elaborate phrases that have a great distance between them.

Sometimes those might actually be staccato phrases which allows a pianist to bounce their fingers to reach notes. Certain notes in the passage might have accents on them too to help outline specific harmonies and inflections.

Pianists should analyze the music and figure out how to best convey the sound the composer intended. Perhaps they can even make slight edits in order to pull off some of those passages. I like this method most because it doesn’t involve omitting any notes, but rather getting creative with the musical character of those passages.

11. Redistributing The Notes

Redistributing the notes is similar to broken chords, but it’s only achievable in certain sections. An example is where you have a huge chord written in one hand but don’t have the hands large enough to reach it. If the other hand has a brief break in the music, it can cross over to play that note.

An example would be a chord like E G B D F. Perhaps you can play those first four notes in the right hand, but not the fifth. In this case if I have a short rest in the left hand it’ll come across the top, play that note and then revert back to my normal playing position.

An example of a piece where this happens a ton is Liszt’s “Un Sospiro”. The melody is begun in the right hand but quickly the left hand will alternate to keep the phrase going. Have a look at this video of it being played to get an idea of what I mean.

Often times you won’t use this method in beginner to intermediate playing, but certainly anything in the Romantic repertoire is fair game.

12. Never Forcing It

My last bit of advice to pianists is to absolutely positively never force it. Forcing your hands to do something they can’t naturally do is dangerous. There are potential injuries that can happen. Even with the stretching exercises pianists need to do it slowly for the best results.

If the pianist is young then you must understand the fingers are going to grow over time. There’s going to be some stuff that they can’t play right now, and that’s totally fine. Even if you’re an adult, working on your hands little by little will make them more flexible and able to reach further up and down the keyboard.

Remember that choreography in your playing is key to executing certain passagework, especially if the hands can’t quite reach their destination on their own.

 

Joshua Ross

Hello & thanks for stopping by! I'm a professional concert pianist and piano instructor. In the United States, I've given successful performances in several places including New York, Florida, Connecticut, & New Jersey, I have also performed internationally in Italy and made my Carnegie Hall debut in 2014. I enjoy blogging about the piano, the art of performance, general music, current events and the latest in music production.

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