At this year’s winter NAMM show the Hailun Pianos exhibited one of their HU-1P uprights fitted with a DS6.0 keyboard. What does this mean?
For over 100 years the piano keyboard has had a standardised octave span of just under 6.5 inches (165mm). And this enables an accomplished pianist with “average-sized” hands to play most pieces of piano music. However, we aren’t (obviously) all average—or in fact, accomplished (but that’s another matter).
It is estimated that around 85% of women and 25% of men have hands with a span too small to comfortably play a comprehensive repertoire when using a conventional keyboard. And of course, a child’s hand is just too small for many pieces. Research has also discovered that smaller-handed pianists are more likely to suffer pain and in some cases injuries when attempting more demanding compositions using a standard keyboard.
So why is the industry making life difficult for its client base? The answer is of course standardisation. Mass production and the desire to keep costs down has led to a one-size-fits-all mentality. Many have also thought it too difficult to move from one size to another.
But small-handed pianist need not despair.
In the early 1990s, David Steinbuhler met Chris Donison at a Canadian music festival. Donison, a concert pianist, realising that his small hands had prevented him from mastering many of the great piano works, had had a 7/8-sized keyboard designed and installed in his piano back in the 1970s.
Steinbughler realised that there must be countless pianists around the world with the same problem, and the two set about producing off-the-shelf retrofit keyboards for acoustic pianos
Together they developed two smaller keyboards which conformed to their own new DS (Donison-Steinbuhler) Standard. Initially, they produced 7/8 (DS-7/8) and 15/16 (DS-15/16) sized keyboards. But this nomenclature proved confusing. So these were reclassified as DS5.5® and DS6.0®.
As stated, a conventional piano keyboard’s octave span is 6.5 inches. These smaller keyboards have an octave span of 6-inch and 5.5-inch respectively. Donison and Steinbuhler found these two additions, in conjunction with the regular 6.5-inch octave keyboard (which they called DS6.5®) cater for virtually all adult hand spans. They also introduced a DS5.1® keyboard which is suitable for children.
Of course one of the greatest difficulties when trying to get a new idea like this off the ground is acceptability. If one has learnt on a full-size keyboard, will one have to re-learn everything for a smaller keyboard? Does one’s muscle memory make it difficult to transfer from one size to another? Well, the answer appears to be “no”.
In the early 19th century there was no standard for the size of a piano’s keyboard, and pianists of the time had to adapt to different instruments wherever they went. When the standard-sized keyboard was adopted in the 1880s pianists forgot how easy it had been to switch between different keyboards. It is much easier to adapt than one would think.
To accommodate a smaller keyboard the keys are angled, and this initially led to problems of springy-ness, especially in the bass section. However, over the years the designs have been refined, and the DS keyboards do not introduce any degradation of power, touch or responsiveness.
Other developments allow for a grand piano to have interchangeable keyboards. Once a DS keyboard has been fitted, then the original keyboard can be re-installed, if required, in a matter of minutes.
The DS Standard Foundation and Hailun Pianos
Today, there are over 200 DS keyboards in existence, many in American universities.
Recently the operation has become a not-for-profit organization — The DS Standard Foundation. Their mission is to promote alternative sized keyboards and the DS standard around the world. The Foundation builds DS keyboards and makes them available, on loan, to all manner if musical institutions.
Also, this month the Dallas International Piano Competition will be the first in the world to provide contestants with a choice of keyboard size… standard (DS6.5), DS6.0 and DS5.5.
And now Hailun Pianos has teamed up with the Foundation to offer alternatively sized keyboards to their customers. The Hailun HU-1P is the first of their instruments to provide this option. This is a 48-inch professional upright piano, widely respected throughout the industry.
The DS Standard Foundation hope the HU-1P will be the first of many instruments to feature this innovation, not only from Hailun Pianos but also from other manufacturers
Thanks to the DS Standard Foundation and Hailun Pianos, many pianists can now experience what it is like to actually have “larger hands”!
For further information contact…
Vienna International (US Hailun Pianos Distributor)
DS Standard Foundation
PASK (Pianists for Alternatively Sized Keyboards)
PASK (YouTube channel)
Small Piano Keyboards (academic literature)
Dallas International Piano Competition
WPN would like to thank David Steinbuhler and Rhonda Boyle for their help in the preparation of this article.