Teaching Observations: Too Small?

This is the second article as part of my new series Teaching Observations. These posts are focused on my thoughts and observations as a piano teacher. Perhaps you are a teacher and will empathize with my views – or you might disagree with them entirely! Either way, I aim to vocalise topics that are sometimes skirted over and which, in my opinion, deserve more attention.

Today’s topic is one which frequently concerns students, parents, and teachers the world over: small hands. It’s not a new or particularly interesting subject but it affects a lot of students, both adults and children.

I am accustomed to teaching those with small hands as I have worked with many young students at various institutes. I have my way of dealing with this issue, as do many teachers, but recently I came up against a bit of a conundrum. I was working with two students, aged eight and nine years old, who needed to take a particular piano exam which, in terms of hands span, eluded them both. Grade 8 piano is known as the ‘final’ piano exam in the graded exam system of UK examination boards. As teachers, we know that there is nothing ‘final’ about it, as there are several diploma exams beyond Grade 8 which demand a far more advanced level of playing. Irrespective of this, most students interested in taking exams want to take Grade 8, and my students were no exception.

Both students had small hand spans and, as we started our exam preparations, we soon realised that suitable repertoire was thin on the ground. We were preparing music from the ABRSM 2021-2022 piano syllabus. As all those familiar with piano examinations will know, for the ‘live’ exam we must prepare three pieces, one from each list, A, B, and C, alongside scales and arpeggios, sight-reading tests, and aural tests.

I am keen for students to play options by composer J S Bach in exams; all my students play Bach regularly, as alongside studies or etudes, this music plays a fundamental role when developing piano technique. In this respect, List A provided two suitable options: the Fantasia in C minor BWV 906 and the Prelude and Fugue in G major BWV 884 from Book 2 of the Well-Tempered Clavier. The prelude and fugue does fit comfortably for the smaller hand, and it also provides excellent counterpoint practice (an important component of the Baroque style), so we plumped for this option, which could be found on the ‘alternative’ syllabus, or extra options which are available alongside the collection of pieces found in the ‘main’ or traditional syllabus publication. Luckily, my students enjoyed this work and it didn’t feel too taxing for them.

List C generally focuses on Late-Romantic, Twentieth-Century, and Contemporary music, although as the years have gone by, selections have been blurred and it’s possible to find numerous genres on these lists. However, the syllabus did offer a suitable piece for students with smaller hands: Snow, Moon, and Flowers from Night Pieces by Peter Sculthorpe, which appeared in the traditional syllabus. A beautiful piece, many of my diploma students prepare the whole work (three movements) for their ARSM/ATCL/DipABRSM diploma exams. This first movement, which is three little pieces almost rolled into one, doesn’t venture beyond the octave, and chords or intervals that do, can usually be ‘spread’, or notes can be rapidly played one after another, making the more taxing passages easier for those who can’t reach them.

Although I like Sculthorpe’s music, I had difficulty persuading my young students to appreciate it. Dissonant music can be off-putting for youngsters and the rhythms took a while to cement into their psyche. But cement them we did, and they eventually came to enjoy this work, playing the pieces from memory and with a real expressivity.

Finding an appropriate piece from List B was not so easy. This option offers anything from Classical to Late-Romantic music – and sometimes beyond this, into Twentieth-Century styles, too. We scoured both the traditional and alternative syllabus, starting several pieces only to realise that to play them satisfactorily, one did, indeed, need bigger hands. Yes, of course, small pianists can ‘spread’ chords (that is, play notes rapidly one after another, or ‘roll’ them together, instead of playing a chord as written) and leave out notes as well, but these options not only cause small-handed players grief, especially the former (and ‘spreading’ chords can disturb the musical flow as well) but they can also render interpretations inaccurate – and there are only so many notes that can be ‘left-out’ before the work sounds rather bare and marks may be lost.

Fortunately, I work closely with parents to find solutions to many a problem associated with younger children and their piano playing, and in this case, both mothers (who play the piano to a reasonably high level) assisted by ‘testing out’ various works, alongside me. Eventually, we settled on the Air (No. 3 from Piano Suite) by Helen Hopekirk, found in the traditional syllabus. I wasn’t happy about this option as, whilst it’s a lovely piece, it required some serious note redistribution for each student. I should perhaps mention that don’t normally assign the same repertoire for students taking a particular exam, but as we had few choices, I encouraged these students to play the same pieces.

We started working on the Air, and I was keen for the students to play the piece as written, even though this went beyond their present physical capabilities. Learning progressed slowly and we spent a long time working hands separately – much longer than usual. To surmount the issues, we paid serious attention to ‘relaxing’ the hand in the ‘out-stretched’ position, with the eventual aim of the ‘flat’ hand being not only within touching distance of the octave, but also for the student to be able to use the thumb and fifth finger effectively and to be able to ‘play’ the notes, as opposed to the finger and thumb ‘resting’ on them – often a difficulty for those who can’t reach properly. This seems counterintuitive at first, as most students tend to tense up their hands when ‘reaching’ out to play an octave and beyond. I gave the students various exercises each week to help in this respect. Care must be taken when teaching such exercises as if done hastily and with a lack of understanding, pain and injury could be the unhappy result.

My pupils enjoyed their little exercises and did learn to be a lot more flexible with and within their hands. This flexibility or looseness became a habit over the weeks and they were known to do the exercises on the tabletop at dinner time or in the car on their knees! After around 4 months, the practice finally paid off, and, due to the frequency of extending their hands, they could both reach and play octaves, albeit slowly and with some trepidation. Now we had the challenge of learning to distribute notes inside that octave to form a chord. It was painstaking work for my pupils and their parents. Patience was the order of the day.

By the time of the exam, my students had learned to play all the chords within this piece and were able to play most of them as written. They passed their Grade 8 exam with good marks and I was pleased that these difficulties had been overcome. However, it shouldn’t be necessary to learn technical exercises for such an exam just because a pupil faces the disadvantage of possessing smaller hands. And without proper technical help delivered by a good teacher, many smaller students, whether a child or an adult, will flounder and hurt themselves.

This particular ABRSM syllabus is now out of date and a new one is in place. Syllabuses tend to change every two years and I’m not blaming exam boards. I have been on the other side of the coin, too; I was a syllabus selector for the London College of Music Examination’s current piano syllabus and I understand the challenges of finding good pieces of the right level for particular grades.  I am merely sharing my experience as an example of what can happen when working with smaller students on more advanced exam repertoire.

Therefore my plea to exam boards and piano festival or competition organisers is this: please consider those with small hands when assigning syllabus repertoire. Shouldn’t there be at least one piece (or preferably two) on all lists which can easily be played by those for whom an octave reach is almost impossible? If this is challenging to find, then why not commission a composer to write something suitable?

Students taking advanced exams are becoming younger and are, therefore, often smaller. Some will argue that if an octave can’t be played, then the student isn’t ready to take the exam. I don’t concur with this view. Surely the idea is to encourage development as opposed to stifling it? Why should a small hand stop a pianist from achieving success in their piano exam?

Popular UK Examination Boards:







Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.