DALLAS — Eliana Yi dreamed of pursuing piano performance in college, never mind that her fingers could barely reach the length of an octave. Unable to fully play many works by Romantic-era composers including Beethoven and Brahms, she tried anyway — and in her determination to spend hours practicing one notoriously "stretchy" Chopin concerto, wound up injuring herself.
Aware of the limitations of her short hand span, competitions were even worse for Yi.
"I would just go to pieces," the Southern Methodist University junior told The Dallas Morning News . "There were just too many octaves. I remember asking one piano teacher, 'Am I just going to play Bach and Mozart for the rest of my life?'"
The efforts of SMU keyboard studies chair Carol Leone are changing all that: Seventeen years ago, the school became the first major university in the U.S. to incorporate smaller keyboards into its music program, leveling the playing field for Yi and other piano majors.
The first time Yi, 21, tried one of the smaller keyboards, "I remember being really excited, because my hands could actually reach and play all the right notes," she said. Ever since, "I haven't had a single injury, and I can practice as long as I want."
For decades, few questioned the size of the conventional piano. If someone's thumb-to-pinky reach was less than 8.5 inches — the distance considered ideal to comfortably play an octave — well, that's just how it was.
Those caught shorthanded are mostly women, with spans an inch shorter than men, on average. An Australian study found that in addition to nearly a quarter of Caucasian men, more than 80 percent of Caucasian women had hand spans too small; the disproportion was even greater for Asians.
For those with small hand spans, it's difficult, if not impossible, to properly play many works of Beethoven and Brahms; the works of Rachmaninoff are particularly daunting. Those who attempt "stretchy" passages either get used to omitting notes or risk tendon injury with repeated play.
"Accumulating evidence demonstrates that pianists in general are locked in a one-size-fits-all world of profound discrimination," wrote David Steinbuhler on the website of Pennsylvania-based Steinbuhler & Co., which produces the smaller keyboards used at SMU.
Leone is familiar with such challenges. Born into a family of jazz musicians, she instead favored classical music and pursued piano despite her small hand span and earned a doctorate in musical arts.
"There has always been a limit to the type of repertoire I can play," she said. "With some of the giants of piano writing — Chopin, Liszt, Brahms — there were pieces I had to avoid playing. Otherwise I would get injured."
But a few years after joining SMU's music faculty in 1996, the decorated pianist read an article in Piano and Keyboard magazine about the smaller keyboards, called "alternatively sized" or "ergonomically scaled" keyboards. As Leone would later write, the discovery would completely renew her life and career.
In 2000, she received a grant to retrofit a department Steinway to accommodate a smaller keyboard, and the benefits were immediate. In addition to alleviating injury caused by overextended fingers, she said, it gave those with smaller spans the ability to play classic compositions taken for granted by larger-handed counterparts.
Smaller keyboards instill many with new confidence. It's not their own limitations that have held them back, they realize; it's the limitations of the instruments themselves. For those devoted to making a life making music, it's as if a cloud has suddenly lifted.
Students now come to SMU specifically for the keyboards. Among them are junior Tiffany Lu, the first student to win SMU's undergrad concerto competition using a smaller keyboard, and second-year grad student Kahoru Amano.
Despite a very small hand span, Amano earned a degree in piano performance at the University of Texas. But where she was once limited to baroque and early classical works — and even then she had to omit notes — she now embraces the type of repertoire by which pianists are typically judged.
"That was a really big thing for me," said Amano, 23. "Now that I'm here playing octaves, it's really great."
Leone has campaigned to get other schools to follow suit, occasionally visiting campuses with a retrofitted piano to demonstrate the simple process of switching out keyboards and writing a number of articles in magazines such as American Music Teacher and Piano Professional.
SMU now uses eight pianos retrofitted to accommodate the smaller-sized keyboards for practice, lessons and performance; the university also hosts the Dallas International Piano Competition along with the Dallas Chamber Symphony, the first such event allowing entrants to play any-sized keyboard.
Such keyboards — which Steinbuhler makes in four sizes, including one designed for small children — are being used at 10 American universities, including Texas Tech and the University of North Texas. Meanwhile, a group called Pianists for Alternatively Sized Keyboards aims to convince major piano manufacturers to make variably sized keyboards as well.
The notion of smaller keyboards first met resistance from some traditionalists. Leone said SMU composition professor Xi Wang once faced ouster from a Shanghai conservatory, where she was pursuing performance, because her hand span wasn't wide enough. Rather than have "corrective surgery" on her tendons — the solution suggested by the conservatory — she pursued composition, Leone said.
Leone also said that when she raised the issue with one Viennese conservatory professor, he told her there were already too many pianists anyway.
Though such resistance is fading, "there are some very traditional people who believe there should be one standard," Leone said. "They're people who think of piano as a competitive thing — like it's a basketball hoop. But this is art, it's not sport. It's about making as much beautiful art as possible, and we should give everybody the opportunity to do that."