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Pianist Hannah Reimann advocates for narrower pianos to help those with small hands

 <a href="https://www.smu.edu/meadows/areasofstudy/music/faculty/leonecarol" link-data="{"cms.site.owner":{"_ref":"00000178-b770-d41c-a77c-f7f516b10000","_type":"ae3387cc-b875-31b7-b82d-63fd8d758c20"},"cms.content.publishDate":1716485625625,"cms.content.publishUser":{"_ref":"0000018f-a64a-dc48-adaf-ee6ab2200000","_type":"6aa69ae1-35be-30dc-87e9-410da9e1cdcc"},"cms.content.updateDate":1716485625625,"cms.content.updateUser":{"_ref":"0000018f-a64a-dc48-adaf-ee6ab2200000","_type":"6aa69ae1-35be-30dc-87e9-410da9e1cdcc"},"cms.directory.paths":[],"anchorable.showAnchor":false,"link":{"attributes":[],"cms.directory.paths":[],"linkText":"Carol Leone","target":"NEW","attachSourceUrl":false,"url":"https://www.smu.edu/meadows/areasofstudy/music/faculty/leonecarol","_id":"0000018f-a684-d413-a9cf-a69d07d50000","_type":"ff658216-e70f-39d0-b660-bdfe57a5599a"},"_id":"0000018f-a684-d413-a9cf-a69d07d40000","_type":"809caec9-30e2-3666-8b71-b32ddbffc288"}">Carol Leone</a>, chair of piano studies at Southern Methodist University's Meadows School of the Arts, performs there in 2016 on a Steinway grand piano rebuilt with a smaller keyboard by <a href="https://dsstandardfoundation.org/products/" link-data="{"cms.site.owner":{"_ref":"00000178-b770-d41c-a77c-f7f516b10000","_type":"ae3387cc-b875-31b7-b82d-63fd8d758c20"},"cms.content.publishDate":1716485644594,"cms.content.publishUser":{"_ref":"0000018f-a64a-dc48-adaf-ee6ab2200000","_type":"6aa69ae1-35be-30dc-87e9-410da9e1cdcc"},"cms.content.updateDate":1716485644594,"cms.content.updateUser":{"_ref":"0000018f-a64a-dc48-adaf-ee6ab2200000","_type":"6aa69ae1-35be-30dc-87e9-410da9e1cdcc"},"cms.directory.paths":[],"anchorable.showAnchor":false,"link":{"attributes":[],"cms.directory.paths":[],"linkText":"DS Standard","target":"NEW","attachSourceUrl":false,"url":"https://dsstandardfoundation.org/products/","_id":"0000018f-a684-d878-a7ef-afbc56600001","_type":"ff658216-e70f-39d0-b660-bdfe57a5599a"},"_id":"0000018f-a684-d878-a7ef-afbc56600000","_type":"809caec9-30e2-3666-8b71-b32ddbffc288"}">DS Standard</a>.
Courtesy Hannah Reimann.

While studying to become a concert pianist in New York, Hannah Reimann grew frustrated at the large — sometimes impossible — stretches that advanced repertoire required of her smaller hands.

"I'm 5' 1" and I can stretch a ninth," meaning a full step beyond an octave, she said. That smaller handspan would normally put out of her reach pieces like the notoriously difficult Third Piano Concerto by Rachmaninoff. The Russian composer was himself a giant of a man who stood at 6' 6" and could cleanly strike a 13th.

But Reimann learned that Josef Hofmann, a friend of the Russian composer to whom that same concerto was dedicated, had refused to perform the piece publicly because of his smaller handspan, and demanded that the prestigious Steinway piano company build him a narrower instrument.

The discovery was a revelation to Reimann, who learned that most piano companies refused to build instruments with narrower keyboards, which she calls "stretto" (narrow) pianos. She had a keyboard custom-designed so that it can just slide in and out of her own 1900 Steinway piano.

"They're exchangeable. I can take one out and put the other one in," she told NPR's Michel Martin about her original and newer keyboards. Reimann insists there's no impact on the quality of the sound: "The piano sounds the same in a concert hall, in a small room, in a medium-sized room."

That initial effort set Reimann on a decadeslong journey to make narrower keyboards more widely available, petitioning piano companies, schools and impresarios around the world, now through her organization Stretto Piano Events.

 Hannah Reimann has sought to make narrower keyboards she calls "stretto" pianos more widely available for more than 30 years.
Steven Burton / Hannah Reimann
Hannah Reimann
Hannah Reimann has sought to make narrower keyboards she calls "stretto" pianos more widely available for more than 30 years.


Getting these narrower keyboards out into concert halls is an uphill battle against the headwinds of tradition, cost and influence.

"The piano manufacturing industry would have to take on a massive project in order to change the size of keyboards and all their existing concert instruments in concert halls all over the world. And manufacturing has been standardized for a product that has thousands of parts," Reimann said.

Despite the challenges, "it appears that the time has come," she said, with some companies offering smaller pianos, though it's still not widespread. At the upper echelons of performance, leading conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim has had instruments fitted with narrower keys for recitals, a practice long kept quiet in a classical music industry that can be slow to embrace change.

During the pandemic, Reimann launched the International Stretto Piano Festival, which runs May 25-June 4 this year. Men and women, from students to veteran players, play various genres of music during the event.

"This is a product that is taking time and influence to be produced more widely," Reimann explained. "What's needed is really people playing concerts on the (stretto) piano, so that everybody knows that they exist."

 Hannah Reimann's Steinway Model C grand piano is shown fitted with a narrower "stretto" keyboard.
Hannah Reimann /
Hannah Reimann's Steinway Model C grand piano is shown fitted with a narrower "stretto" keyboard.

Does size matter?

Simply using a smaller keyboard won't turn a smaller-handed pianist into a prodigy overnight, but it will reduce tension — the enemy of musicality — and the possibility of injuries.

Fellow advocates, like Carol Leone, chair of piano studies at Southern Methodist University's Meadows School of the Arts, have compiled statistics showing that men far outnumber women as winners of major piano competitions that are especially critical at the start of an artist's career. But women tend to outpace men in competitions for the violin, which comes in various sizes and adaptations.

And yet, many smaller-handed pianists have performed at the highest level, from Alicia de Larrocha and Vladimir Ashkenazy to Martha Argerich. That's because the biggest challenge in advanced repertoire is not necessarily the reach — very large hands can be challenging to maneuver in certain virtuosic pieces — but technical ease and agility, something that can be found in all hand sizes.

"If you're talking about a great artist like Maria João Pires, I have seen her play where she's so smart about how she uses her elbow and her shoulder and her torso in very, very subtle ways to achieve, to focus on the musical expression of the composition and not to be hindered by the physical challenge," said Norman Krieger, who chairs the piano department at Indiana University Bloomington's Jacobs School of Music.

"That's really sort of 99% of what we do as pianists. We're always trying to figure out ways of creating the illusion of sustain."

Canadian pianist Roger Lord plays Hannah Reimann's stretto piano.
/ Hannah Reimann
Hannah Reimann
Canadian pianist Roger Lord plays Hannah Reimann's stretto piano.

Time for change?

Krieger welcomes the prospect of instruments that are more accessible to more aspiring musicians.

"I don't think one can be a purist or should be, because an instrument is not an end in itself. It's a means to an end, which is the music and the expression of the music," he said.

"If it's a question of making it possible to play music that they normally wouldn't on the current specs of a modern piano, then all I can say is bravo."

And a smaller keyboard is not an entirely new thing either. Long before Hofmann — the Polish-American pianist and inventor who befriended Rachmaninoff — the harpsichords and clavichord centuries before had smaller and narrower keyboards. Even the modern piano's close ancestor the fortepiano had narrower and shorter keys in its early iterations.

"The modern piano really hasn't changed that much in the last 120 years, except that it's a little bit brighter and it's built to really project in a large concert hall," Krieger said.

"The irony of this whole historic journey in my mind is that when you're playing music by Mozart or Haydn or Bach or Clementi or Scarlatti, those sounds were really not composed for Carnegie Hall or the Concertgebouw or the Musikverein. They were composed for a room, a little room or a salon."

An ergonomically curved piano made its New York debut last year, the same maker (Chris Maene) created a straight-strung instrument for Barenboim, while a Hungarian carbon fiber design gives the "Batpiano" its futuristic looks, so might a stretto piano be next?

"It's like a miracle," Reimann said. "It brings so much joy and so much beautiful music making. Really, the music speaks for itself."

The broadcast version of this story was produced by Barry Gordemer and edited by Olivia Hampton.

Copyright 2024 NPR Music

Olivia Hampton
[Copyright 2024 NPR]