By Tina Chong, Ellie Deener, and Sara Carr
Pianists with hands of small to average size have long been restricted to playing music that fits their hands, regardless of what repertoire they might actually want to play. This situation has changed. Hailun’s model HU1P upright piano now offers a choice of ergonomic keyboard sizes at affordable prices (MSRP from $24,579). This 48″ professional upright is a solid choice for an institutional or studio instrument, and can be ordered with keys of standard width, or of the narrower DS5.5 or DS6.0 sizes, as established by the DS Standard Foundation (www.dsstandardfoundation.org). (The Foundation is named after Christopher Donison and David Steinbuhler, the manufacturers of the reduced-width keyboards.) The number following “DS” indicates the octave span in inches: An octave on a conventional keyboard measures about 6.5″, the precise width varying slightly among piano brands. The DS5.5 keyboard is ⅞ the width of a conventional keyboard, or about 15% smaller; and the DS6.0, which the Foundation calls the Universal Keyboard, is 15/16 as wide as a conventional keyboard.
Pianists and piano teachers are generally unaware of the availability of ergonomically scaled piano keyboards (ESPK), though they’ve been in production for decades. ESPKs offer a solution to the large population of pianists whose hands are smaller than the standard keyboard size was designed to accommodate. The 48″ Hailun HU1P and 50″ HU5P uprights, and the Hailun-made Cunningham pianos, are currently the only models of new piano for which an ESPK is offered by the piano’s manufacturer, but piano owners of any brand also have the option to send their instruments’ actions directly to David Steinbuhler, in Titusville, Pennsylvania, for retrofitting with a DS keyboard. (Hailun says that it plans to offer the reduced-size keyboards for grand pianos in the near future.)
ESPKs increase the ease and joy of piano playing for women and men whose hands are of smaller than average size. They give the pianist access to a wider body of repertoire, with less time spent figuring out such work-arounds as rolling chords, redistributing notes between hands, or omitting some notes entirely. This allows the pianist to then focus more on musical details, and fosters a smoother path to confidence and mastery. Sightreading becomes easier, due to less time spent gauging jumps and stretches. The increase of neutral hand positions experienced while playing an ESPK results in less muscle fatigue, a key component to preventing injury.
How easy is it to switch between piano keyboards of different widths? I found the transition from a conventional size to a DS6.0 keyboard instantaneous, requiring no period of adjustment. Students of mine have commented on having to get used to wide leaps, mostly octave intervals. When relying primarily on vision, the smaller keyboard can at first be a little startling. There is also a loss of surface area on the black keys — they, too, are narrower than their standard counterparts — which can produce a sensation of fingers sliding off, and fingerings that feel a little less stable. However, I find that when I trust my ears, the transition to the DS6.0 is seamless. In practice, performance, and demonstrations in my teaching studio, I often go back and forth between keyboard sizes with no loss of ease or accuracy.
The adjustment when returning to a conventional keyboard from the DS6.0 is not as immediate, but I’ve found it to be an easy shift. The standard-width keyboard then feels more difficult to play, requiring more effort and energy. However, I’m aware of this difference only in a direct A/B comparison. When I begin a new playing session on a standard keyboard, it feels as natural as always.
The Hailun HU1P has a light, easy action with even tone quality across the keyboard, and is responsive to subtle changes in dynamics, with a range of color comparable to other 48″ uprights. As on any piano, the action and tone can be adjusted to specific tastes and abilities by any capable piano technician.
Permanent, viable, and affordable solutions for pianists with hands of small to average size exist in instruments such as the DS-equipped Hailun HU1P. It is the responsibility of performers and teachers to educate pianists on their freedom of choice, and to foster a smoother path to meaningful musical experiences.
Tina Chong, D.M. is an assistant professor at the School of Music and Dance at San Diego State University, in San Diego, California.
I enjoyed my first experience with Hailun’s HU1P DS6.0 upright, and was glad to have the opportunity to play such an unusual instrument. Right away, the appearance of this model is visually shocking, with its narrow keyboard and extended, gold-colored cheek blocks — but when I sat down and began to play, kinesthetically it all made sense. Beginning with familiar scales and patterns allowed me to acclimate quickly to the instrument. When switching between the DS6.0 keyboard and a piano with standard-width keys, I was able to adapt in just a few minutes — something I hadn’t expected. However, if I began playing the DS6.0 without giving myself any time to adjust, I experienced a slight loss of accuracy. Octaves required a brief period of kinesthetic adjustment, but after that were definitely easier to play on the Hailun. Chords proved a more difficult adaptation — the spacing between the black keys became somewhat cramped for my average-width fingers.
Note that, in the low bass and high treble, the rear part of the DS keyboard’s keys are angled more than in a conventional keyboard, in order to connect the narrower keyboard with the standard-width action.
Considering other aspects of Hailun’s HU1P upright, its tone was pleasant, the surprisingly rich lower bass a perk I hadn’t expected to hear in a 48″ upright. The feel of the action struck a happy medium between loose and very tight. The regulation of this instrument, which is subject to institutional use and was probably in need of a post–break-in touchup, did seem slightly less responsive and more heavy than the regulation of a typical upright or concert grand, making some fast-moving technical passages harder to control. The Hailun’s mute or practice pedal is a great feature for home use, and I could definitely see myself using it for late-night practice sessions or apartment living. I found it worked better than the muting mechanisms on other comparable uprights because, unlike some others, the thickness and support of the felt muting strip didn’t allow multiple notes to sound when only a single note was played. My only complaint about the HU1P is that the music desk attached to its fallboard is very shallow and rather narrow; I prefer a higher, deeper desk affixed above the fallboard.
I see a lot of value for this instrument when used in educational settings. It would better encourage students who do not yet have the physical ability to play repertoire that requires large hands and well-developed flexibility. I found playing passages from Rachmaninoff’s Polichinelle, which had previously been problematic, a wonderful experience on this piano. Wider hand positions in this work had always caused tendon strain in my right wrist; when I played them on the Hailun DS6.0, the strain essentially went away.
I would love to see this instrument become more widely accessible across disciplines. It is exciting to see the previously unmet need for adaptability being met for those with smaller hands or other incapability and who struggle playing a standard-width keyboard. The option of having a DS6.0 keyboard is a great step toward greater access and success for these pianists.
Ellie Deener is in her third year of earning a B.A. in piano at Georgia College, in Milledgeville, Georgia. She loves pursuing adaptive options in music education, and plans to continue teaching and to run a private piano studio.
When I was asked to contribute to this review, I was delighted — and surprised. A violinist for 18 years, I am not primarily a pianist. My hands are not trained and stretched enough to play wide intervals on the piano, and are very small for an adult woman. My left hand can stretch about two centimeters farther than my right, because it is the hand used on a violin’s fingerboard. My hands can span an octave on the piano, albeit uncomfortably. This is important: I am also a music-therapy student, and in my session work as a music therapist, I frequently harmonize folk and popular songs on the piano with octaves in the bass, often while singing and playing.
When I first attempted to play the Hailun HU1P with a DS6.0 keyboard, I worried that I’d be unable to adjust properly in the hour allotted. This piano was positioned next to a baby grand with a standard-width keyboard, for me to play and compare. I first compared my ranges on both pianos: On the baby grand, precisely an octave, but on the DS6.0 I could span a ninth — a significant difference. I found the adjustment to the narrower keys of the Hailun DS6.0 almost instantaneous, though my left hand, with its wider stretch, took longer to adjust than my right. But after only 90 seconds or so, it surprisingly felt a lot more comfortable than what I’ve gotten used to from years of piano study on full-width keyboards. After playing for about five minutes on the DS6.0, I returned to the standard-width grand to see what the readjustment would be like. That, too, was almost instantaneous. I began to realize how much more of a strain on my hands playing a full-width keyboard had always been, and even began to notice slight pain in my wrists — a familiar byproduct of my physiology when playing the piano.
I immediately began thinking about how, after completing my studies and becoming a licensed music therapist, I would be able to use such an instrument with clients of various ages and diagnoses. It would be a much more viable option for arthritic clients who can’t stretch their hands far without pain, or for those clients with more limited ranges of fine motor motion. It would also be ideal to use with clients recovering from traumatic brain injuries who are in the process of recovering their full range of motion, without overstraining them. It would motivate children in music therapy, who would be able to complete more piano activities without getting discouraged. Overall, I believe that if this piano were more widely available, it would be a popular choice, especially for adults with smaller hands such as mine. I found it encouraging to be able to practice with less strain, and immediately realized how, over the long term, this would make my job less physically painful, stressful, and demanding.
Sara Carr is a third-year music-therapy student at Georgia College, in Milledgeville, Georgia. Primarily a violinist, she also has functional proficiency in guitar, ukulele, and piano.