By Sarah Morris
There has always been a dark, inescapable thought in the back of my mind for almost as long as I can remember pursuing piano mastery: Will my hand size limit my potential as a pianist? My hands are very small compared to most professional pianists, which can present many challenges in mastering advanced repertoire.
Objectively, this is a silly concern. I grew up playing the piano; my father was a piano professor, and there are photos of him holding me as a baby with my hands on the keys. My life as a pianist includes extensive training in academia, including a Bachelor’s degree in piano performance, a Master’s degree in piano performance at Texas Christian University, a second Master’s degree in piano pedagogy at TCU, and I am currently a doctoral student at Shenandoah University, studying with John O’Conor. My resumé will tell you that I am capable of all requirements of proficiency, including skill, discipline, and musicality. But my hand size compared to the standard-sized keyboard continues to present subtle challenges in my studies, and I know I’m not alone in this struggle.
Keyboards have not always been the size that they are today. In fact, the keyboards of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven were significantly smaller. Our current keyboard size was only recently standardized around 1880 when manufacturers began constructing pianos with cross-stringing and larger soundboards. While there were practical considerations in making the keys wider, the new keyboards primarily benefited the touring virtuosos of the day: European men with wide hand spans. This standardization put pianists with smaller hands at a severe disadvantage. Quoting from the Pianists for Alternately Sized Keyboards (PASK) website,
“Research and much anecdotal evidence indicates that pianists with hand spans of 8.5 inches or less would benefit significantly from a smaller keyboard. Using this metric, 23% of adult men would benefit and 87% of adult women!”¹
Nearly half of pianists have a greater risk of pain and injury due to strained or stretched hand positions, and many pianists have severely limited access to repertoire that involves stretches simply beyond their physical ability.
About a hundred years after the current keyboard size was standardized, pianist Christopher Donison and computer scientist David Steinbuhler created a design for an alternatively sized keyboard. Once this idea started catching on, they studied pianists’ hands playing five different sizes of keyboards ranging from 38-42 inches. This research resulted in the development of three different keyboard sizes:
DS6.5 (conventional keyboard) which has a 6.5-inch (16.5 cm) octave, 48.29 inches (122.7 cm) total width
DS6.0® (Universal keyboard) 15/16 width of conventional – 6.0-inch (15.2 cm) octave, 44.57 inches (113.2 cm) total width
DS5.5® (7/8 keyboard)— 5.54-inch (14.1 cm) octave, 41.14 inches (104.5 cm) total width.
DS keyboards essentially level the playing field for all pianists, ensuring that everyone can play on keys that fit their hands - particularly children and minorities.
My DS Experience
I had heard rumors that a smaller-sized keyboard existed, but for the longest time, I simply didn’t have access to one. I heard stories of pianists bursting into tears because they were overwhelmed with the possibilities, and I wondered what it might be like to try it. Earlier this year, I was introduced to the DS Foundation while presenting at the National Music Teachers National Association Collegiate Symposium. The foundation has a program that allows universities to borrow one of the DS keyboards for up to one year. Through a series of communications with Dr. Carol Leone and the piano faculty at Shenandoah Conservatory, we secured a DS5.5 keyboard loan from May 2023 through the end of January 2024. I was incredibly excited to finally experience one of these keyboards for myself.
When it arrived on campus, I was stunned by its visual appearance. To avoid compromising the tone of the piano, the keys feature a dog-leg design that allows the reduction of key width independent of all other parts of the piano action.
Our university piano technician kindly invited me to watch her install the keyboard into a Steinway and Sons Model B in the practice room. The process was far more complex and labor-intensive than I had imagined; it took several hours just to secure the keyboard in the correct position within the keybed, and it took several more days to align the keyboard with the internal workings and pedals. Its thousands of precisely manufactured parts require extensive maintenance in order to work together properly. Not only that, but altering the foundational part of the piano action while retaining the tone and precision of a concert instrument requires exacting technical expertise. I had dreamed of being able to access this keyboard both in the practice room and in the recital hall, but the complexity of the installation and the variation of design between two different pianos limited the ability to move it between instruments. The size of the practice room eliminated any chance of giving a performance there, and moving the piano itself would have required professional movers and an immense amount of resources. In spite of that, my experience with this keyboard made it all worth it.
The DS5.5 keyboard transformed my experience of playing piano. It felt as if I had spent my entire life running in shoes that were five sizes too big, and I could finally experience the joy of running in shoes that fit correctly. My hands can barely stretch to play an octave on a standard keyboard, but on the DS5.5, I could comfortably play octave scales with precision (and the ideal 4-5 fingering) and even fill in octaves with chords. The DS5.5 took the strain and unhealthy stretching out of my playing and gave me more control, artistic freedom, and access to repertoire. My hands and wrists felt far less strained across nearly all of my repertoire, even the pieces that didn’t require large reaches. Simple triads felt far more relaxed and naturally fitting under my hand. Legato melody lines were smoother and more natural, especially while my right hand was responsible for the melody and a sixteenth-note accompaniment underneath. I could practice technically demanding pieces with large reaches for longer periods of time. I sight-read pieces I have long desired to play, but was simply unable to on a standard keyboard. I found myself laughing with delight through Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” because I’ve never been able to play all the notes before!
Since I had such a positive experience practicing on this keyboard over the summer, I assumed that the inclusivity of an alternative keyboard size would be a cause to celebrate, yet the resistance and skepticism towards the DS5.5 within the piano department was shocking. The students were somewhat open to the idea of having an alternative size, but because it took away space from one of the limited number of standard grand pianos on campus, there was quite an uproar. Students felt that it might be a good idea for certain demographics, but couldn’t benefit them personally. Of course, some of them simply had hands too big to fit between the black keys; many still resisted the keyboard out of fear or genuine ignorance.
Perhaps if there had been a mandatory assembly explaining the purpose, importance, and strategy of the DS5.5, its presence would have been better received. The aversion within the music department was initially disheartening, but in retrospect, I am grateful for the opportunity to learn about the experiences of fellow pianists who could have benefitted from the keyboard had they been able to move beyond the initial disorientation of playing on smaller keys. Their fear of adapting to a new experience forced me to use my experience (and occasional annoyance with the keyboard) to help others find solutions before giving up too soon.
The initial adjustment period to the DS5.5 took me about 45 minutes to an hour to feel completely comfortable. I was absolutely delighted with the initial feel of it—how octaves felt more comfortable, I could securely reach a ninth, and techniques that I had never been able to use suddenly made sense. It was a bit visually disorienting, as my hands looked “normal” instead of being dwarfed by the standard key size. Since octaves were a struggle to downsize, I could not rely on my muscle memory as much. I could play with ease, but my accuracy definitely took a hit. Slowing down and focusing on smaller sections helped me to adjust and concentrate without being overwhelmed or unbearably frustrated with the decline in accuracy. Eventually, it started to feel more and more natural. Once I had completely acclimated to the DS5.5, it took about 15 minutes to readjust back to a standard size. Adjusting to the feeling of octaves was the main issue once more. Slowing down and concentrating on smaller sections helped me regain normal accuracy without too much frustration.
After a few weeks of strategically switching back and forth, I came up with a simple 2-3 minute warm-up routine consisting of scales, arpeggios, and octave scales that allowed me to adjust between both keyboards with little to no decrease in accuracy. As a student who only had one DS keyboard to practice on but had my lessons and performances on a standard keyboard, it was important to practice pieces on both keyboards. The DS allowed me to use a more relaxed technique and better fingering, but sometimes, these improvements simply weren’t possible on a standard size. So, as I learned pieces with the ideal technique and fingering on the DS, I would routinely double-check them on the standard to ensure that it would carry over. When it didn’t carry over, I would simply annotate the score with the best fingering (or omit certain notes) for the standard keyboard and practice the newly-revised piece on the DS. While it may seem like it would slow down the learning process, it actually gave me a more robust understanding of the ideal technique required to master these pieces.
I understand why many students would initially recoil from the DS5.5. It looks different, feels different, can temporarily cause a decrease in accuracy, and requires additional practice strategies to experience success. However, with a little patience and intentional practice, the benefits far outweigh any inconvenience. The significantly reduced risk of injury is a compelling enough reason for practice on a DS5.5, but beyond that, the control, freedom of expression, and access to previously restricted repertoire makes this keyboard a revolutionary tool for helping musicians express their full musical potential.
For more information about the DS Standard Foundation, visit their website.
Hailun offers upright pianos with DS Standard Foundation actions. Read our review of them here.
Pianists for Alternatively-Sized Keyboards is an international movement committed to achieving change in relation to piano keyboard size. Visit their website here.
See also the bibliography included in this summary: https://paskpiano.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/Alternatively-sized-piano-keyboards-Bibliography_Sept-2022.pdf
Sarah Morris earned a bachelor’s degree in piano performance from Evangel University, followed by two master’s degrees from Texas Christian University in Piano Performance and Piano Pedagogy. She is currently working towards her doctorate in Piano Performance under John O’Conor at Shenandoah Conservatory, as well as a graduate certificate in Performing Arts Health and Fitness at Shenandoah University. She is also a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and has presented at multiple national and international conferences regarding her research on the positive impact of fitness training for musicians. Outside of piano and research, Sarah is a nationally competitive weightlifter and recently earned Silver in her weight class at the 2023 USA Weightlifting Nationals.