Robert Estrin - piano expert
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How to approach the Moonlight Sonata with small hands

Useful tips to approach any kind of repertoire requiring chords larger than an octave

Released on April 30, 2013

  
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Hi, I'm Robert Estrin at Virtualsheetmusic.com with a video that is questions and answers from viewers like yourself. This one, somebody with small hands asks, "How do you approach the Beethoven Moonlight Sonata when the reach is greater than your hand can reach?" This is a great question and you asked the right person. I have very small hands. I can reach only a ninth, a tenth just barely around the keys.

As a child growing up it was really tough because I was studying repertoire that was quite sophisticated in my teen years, and could barely reach an octave. Thank goodness I can reach a solid octave, because if you can't reach a solid octave on the piano it's very difficult to approach the keyboard. But assuming you can reach a good solid octave, you should be in good shape and I'm going to show you the secret. Years ago I got to speak with the pianist Ivan Moravec, great pianist. Also a pianist with small hands and we talked a little bit at that time about the challenges of playing with small hands.

Of course, one of the things that you will need to do is develop a great deal of strength, because with a lot of strength you can overcome the limitations of the small hands. But specifically Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, of course right at the beginning there is a reach that is a little bit beyond what I can reach. I'm going to show you how I play it. Then I'm going to show you how you can play it even if you can't reach a ninth. I can reach a ninth but I still can't reach the passage as it's written, and I'll show you what I mean.

I don't know if you can see right there. Here, if I played it without the pedal you're going to hear how abrupt it is, because I cannot reach. So I take it on the pedal and that is the secret. And I'm going to show you some other pieces that I play that are far beyond my reach where I'm able to get chords by utilizing the pedal and breaking them. So I'm going to show you how you can play this if you can't even reach the ninth. If you can't reach that, I'm going to break it and get it on the pedal.

Now you might have noticed a little break, but it's not a big deal, is it? In fact, I do it all over the place in music. For example, the beginning of the Schumann Carnaval. Now if I play that same passage without the pedal, watch the left hand tenths. I can't reach these tenths at all, but I grab them quickly with a pedal while breaking them very quickly. The secret to breaking them properly is getting the balance out of them that you want.

So right there at the end, if I do that with a pedal, it almost sounds like I'm reaching the...But I'm not, I'm actually going...Do you hear the difference between...and...? So that is a tenth. I can't reach a tenth but I can make it sound convincing. Hopefully it's convincing to you.

So take that in all the places where you can't quite reach. Break it, make sure you get the bottom note, break it from the bottom up, grab that bottom note on the pedal so that you get the entire chord sustaining, even though it's an illusion. You know something? It works great, because if you ever listen to pianists who have enormous hands who don't need to break things, breaking chords is something that many people do just for expressive effect anyway. So it gives you creative license to break chords that you can't reach and don't even think twice about it. Incorporate this into your playing and there's no limit to the repertoire you can play, no matter how big the reaches that are called for.

Thanks for joining me, Robert Estrin here at virtualsheetmusic.com.
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Kathleen * VSM MEMBER * on December 30, 2015 @2:10 pm PST
Needless to say, anything by Rachmaninoff requires this...plus he built a lot of redundancy into his chords so sometimes I just kind of invert where necessary or skip extra notes...I guess he had really big hands.
Milla Gotlib on December 30, 2015 @5:57 am PST
That's what I'm doing for Gershwin's C# min. Prelude, but it's hard.
Pat * VSM MEMBER * on December 30, 2015 @4:47 am PST
Thanks for posting this video. I too have a nine note span and I have always broken chords "beyond my reach" on either hand in order to play them.
I always felt a little uneasy playing the music this way but after viewing your video, I feel a lot more relaxed about approaching musical spans that are beyond me.
Thanks again for the video!
joyce on May 31, 2013 @5:07 pm PST
Downton Abbey has a lot of 10ths. This is the piece I am working on now.
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Robert - host, on June 1, 2013 @12:02 pm PST
There are certain styles of music with 10ths such as stride piano that I avoid. While breaking large chords are a staple technique for people with small hands, there are practical limits as to what repertoire is ideal for small hands.
Annette * VSM MEMBER * on August 15, 2013 @2:54 pm PST
I have difficulty with chords especially those that are an octave width and include flats or sharps. I have small hands and can barely reach the note past the octave It is easy when the chord is broken up, but when you play the whole chord at once, my fingers hurt.
joyce on May 31, 2013 @1:15 pm PST
When breaking the chords does the base note have to be on the beat or does it matter.
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Robert - host, on May 31, 2013 @3:40 pm PST
Broken chords are negotiated differently depending upon context. If you have a particular piece of music you have questions about, please let me know.
Millie * VSM MEMBER * on May 20, 2013 @1:19 pm PST
Lost sound for a couple of days - advised to turn off computer since wires were O.K. -- sound has returned and I could hear your advice.
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Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on May 20, 2013 @4:49 pm PST
Great news! Thank you Millie for let us know about this.
Robert - host, on May 20, 2013 @5:17 pm PST
Wonderful!
Millie * VSM MEMBER * on May 19, 2013 @5:01 pm PST
Sound is not coming through --
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Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on May 20, 2013 @11:55 am PST
I am sorry about that. Are you experiencing this issue with just this video? Please, tell me more, I am willing to help.
Helena boggia on May 8, 2013 @10:35 am PST
Excellent.
Bribied * VSM MEMBER * on May 2, 2013 @2:48 am PST
I was doing this anyway, thinking I'll never be a good pianist for that reason. Thanks for assuring me that there is nothing wrong with it.
Fulvia * VSM MEMBER * on May 1, 2013 @7:02 pm PST
My hands have always been very small, and now with arthritis set in even one octave is difficult if I have to play other keys at the same time. At that B note in the moonlight sonata, I have always used the left hand, and kept the pedal on. Mother who was a pianist could not tell the difference!
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Robert - host, on May 2, 2013 @10:56 am PST
Fulvia-

My reaction to your unorthodox technique is, "Whatever works!" No two people are built the same or have the same circumstances. I'm glad you found a solution to playing the Moonlight Sonata even with hand problems.

I would suggest that you try to play the piano every day to develop more strength. If you can get to the point where there is sufficient muscle tissue, it can protect the delicate joints. The challenge is being able to work up enough time without doing any damage. Try playing on a very regular basis and see if you can overcome the weakness of your joints. Good luck!
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