You can’t be a pianist without [at least one] (http://nicholasmccarthy.co.uk/). But what do you do if you are a small-handed pianist (barely an octave in the right hand, and that just at the edges of the keys) and want to play Chopin Op. 53 (the “Heroic” Polonaise”)? Your teacher looks at you with consternation, and then tells you that you must learn Chopin Études in a certain order, and that it will take a couple of years.
Fast forward two and a half years; my right hand span is now a centimetre longer than it was at the beginning of this saga. That single centimetre has been enough to allow me to play an octave right on top of the keys, enabling me to get a lot closer to the Op 53 ambition. I still can’t play the piece, but I can now play all the notes. It’s taken a lot of patience and trust in the sometimes non-intuitive ways of breaking down the Études; for example, I spent a couple of months practising the right hand of Chopin Op. 25 No. 9, shaking out my wrist after every half bar, to learn the feeling of playing octaves without stiffening my wrist.
I am well over the age that people stop growing, so the improvement is entirely down to the practise regimen. The increase in ability is not just down to the increase in span, but also increase in flexibility of all the fingers. When I play chords spanning an octave, I can now get the fingers out of the way that aren’t playing anything, avoiding hitting extraneous notes. I am not familiar with hand anatomy, but it feels as though the ligaments inside the palm have had to stretch the most.
As I progressed through the different exercises, I have felt my hands and arms up to the elbow ache in strange places. I am fortunately quite body-aware so have never done any damage; if the ache persists in the same place for a few days, I stop and work on something else until it goes away. (Incidentally, my typing speed has increased considerably, and I can now take dictation in almost real time.)
It’s tremendously motivating and every few months I take out a couple of octave heavy favourites to retry – every few months I am able to play big chords that bit more cleanly. There are no short cuts and this slow and steady progress feels more satisfying than if I were to magically be able to do it overnight, because I know that it is sustainable.
Mentally, it’s required the ability to trust that the practise will bear fruit, and to stop when it starts to hurt- not to push through to the point of damage (Probably a useful skill in any physical endeavour).
Obviously, my fingers aren’t going to grow any longer, but I hope that this will offer hope to other small-handed pianists. But a word of caution: It’s probably a bad idea to embark upon such a programme without the supervision of an experienced teacher, so as not to end up like Schumann.