A piano for smaller hands comes to UdeM

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A narrower keyboard on loan from a U.S. company to the Faculty of Music reduces muscle fatigue and provides more comfort and sound control for smaller-handed pianists, typically women.

"Standard size keyboards are perfect for the majority of men-and a minority of women," notes Justine Pelletier , a pianist and visiting professor at UdeM’s Faculty of Music who has played with renowned orchestras including the Montreal Symphony under Kent Nagano.

Recently, she learned about the Donison-Steinbuhler Standard Foundation , a Pennsylvania company that manufactures piano action mechanisms with narrower keys. The modified actions can be installed on grand pianos, allowing pianists with smaller hands-chiefly women-to play a larger repertoire, while retaining the expressive capabilities of conventionally sized keyboards.

Some universities in the U.S. and Europe have already adopted the innovative mechanism, after testing it on loan. Now it’s UdeM’s turn; the university is the first in Canada to get it. Since January, in their performance classes, music students have been trying out the new DS6.0 model, whose keyboard reduces the size of an octave from the standard 16.51 cm (6.5 in.) to 15.24 cm (6.0 in.).

"That half-inch reduction may not make much of a difference for some pianists, but for smaller-handed musicians, it can be a game-changer in terms of their accuracy of playing and their tone control," Pelletier said.

Female players risk injury

Hours of repetitive motion while practicing an instrument can cause muscle fatigue, a risk factor for musculoskeletal disorders, something studies have shown female musicians are more likely to develop. "Pianists with smaller hands often have to play with more pronounced ulnar deviation and finger abduction, for example, which can increase the risk of injury," Pelletier explained.

Working with experts from UdeM’s School of Kinesiology, the music faculty’s researchers will analyze variations in muscular activity in pianists with different hand sizes, using both a traditional keyboard and the DS6.0.

So far, despite initial apprehensions about adjusting to the narrower keys, most of the female students who’ve tried it have given it a big thumbs-up. They’ve found the narrower keyboard more comfortable, and are better able to control the piano’s tone. With their larger hands, though, many male students struggled with it; some found their fingers were just too thick to fit between the black keys.

Despite the differences, Pelletier said she hopes the keyboard "will become more commonplace in concert venues and educational institutions" and will gain widespread acceptance among music students as well as amateur musicians.