When pianist and UW-Madison professor Jessica Johnson sat down for the first time at a 7/8th-size keyboard, the experience was bittersweet.
“The ‘sweetness’ came from discovering how many more musical possibilities were available to me that previously I couldn’t consider,” said Johnson, who is also the university’s director of graduate studies in piano pedagogy.
“For example — different fingers, different positions, different ways of moving.”
The “bitter” came from realizing she had spent decades of her life playing an instrument that wasn’t scaled for her body. Although she has dedicated her life to performing and teaching piano, Johnson, 50, had always strained to reach some notes, and even avoided taking on music that required large chords and octaves.
That changed three years ago, when Johnson won a UW graduate school faculty research grant to buy an alternative keyboard for one of the two Steinway pianos that sit in her campus teaching studio.
Keys on the instrument are narrower than the standard modern piano, allowing her to experiment with her art at a deeper level.
The experience has led Johnson to become an advocate for the “ergonomically engineered piano keyboard,” a choice she said can help pianists with small hands better develop their musicianship — and avoid the serious repetitive stress injuries that plague some pianists.
On Saturday, Johnson’s smaller-scaled keyboard will be in the spotlight as she holds a full day of workshops, a masterclass and a concert. All the events are free and open to the public.
She’s titled the event, where anyone can come and try out her 7/8-size piano, “The Joy of Downsizing.” And for Johnson, the joy is apparent.
“I have fewer choices when I am on the conventional-sized instrument,” she explained. “I spend a great deal of energy when I play the conventional instrument navigating the physical relationship. Now I can just slide over to the other piano and think ‘What do I want to bring out? How do I want to shape this?’ — rather than just getting there.”
“We’re talking about art here, where the fine motor control is the difference between, ‘I survived it’ or ‘I’ve created this incredibly memorable, moving artistic experience,’” she said. “It’s life-changing for a pianist.”
Johnson’s new keyboard, which fits into an existing grand piano, was designed and manufactured by Steinbuhler & Company. The Pennsylvania-based firm was founded in 1991 by David Steinbuhler, a textile manufacturer, who worked with pianist Christopher Donison to create the “Donison-Steinbuhler Standard,” or DS keyboard.
The DS keyboard at UW-Madison cost $11,000, and can be swapped in and out of the grand piano by a trained piano technician. Steinbuhler and Company also manufactures upright pianos with keyboards designed to fit the smaller hand.
Still, it’s been difficult for the design to gain acceptance in the broader academic and performance worlds. Only about 20 universities in the U.S. own an alternative piano keyboard, Johnson said.
“There is sort of this stigma. ‘Why would you need a different instrument? Plenty of people get around it anyway,’” she said, quoting detractors.
“And I feel that ... it’s all about the music-making. And whatever facilitates that is more important to me than the fact that I can stretch an enormous chord.”
Johnson’s piano was key to the recovery of Cody Goetz, a fourth-year undergraduate studying piano performance at UW-Madison.
Goetz suffered such severe tendinitis his sophomore year that he almost abandoned his major in music. But with physical therapy, changes to his technique and Johnson’s help, he said, he was able to make a full recovery.
He eased back into playing first at Johnson’s 7/8 keyboard before returning to a full-sized keyboard.
“I was almost afraid to stretch outward,” said Goetz, one of many student and professional musicians who have suffered injuries due to intense practice. “The 7/8 keyboard helped me get back into a comfortable place with the repertoire.”
Piano keys were not always the size they are today.
In fact, earlier instruments, which were designed to be played at home or in small music rooms, had keyboards to fit their intimate settings. It was only when 19th-century pianist Franz Liszt — the rock star of his day — began playing huge halls that piano builders met his demand for a louder piano, with greater tension and heavier keys.
About 75 percent of women and 20 percent of men are categorized as having a small hand, meaning it is difficult to stretch a tenth (two notes beyond an eight-note octave) on the conventional piano.
A tenth “is what research shows you need to be able to reach in order to perform the big chords and octaves in most of the Romantic repertoire,” such as Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff and Brahms, Johnson said.
The conundrum has resulted in fewer women winning major piano competitions, she said.
For the past two years, the Dallas International Piano Competition has offered contestants the chance to use an alternative keyboard, and “last year a prize winner competed using the DS6.0 size,” said keyboard manufacturer David Steinbuhler.
“She had never played on an alternative before she arrived in Dallas, and by the finals of the competition the pain in her arms had completely disappeared,” he said in an e-mail.
Johnson, wrote Steinbuhler, “is courageously breaking new ground in the Midwest.”
“It will not happen quickly, but if our DS Standard Keyboards were readily available throughout the world, I would say that probably some 70 percent of the students studying piano at universities would choose to play on an alternative one,” he said.
“There is today profound discrimination in the world of the piano. Universities around the world do not provide their piano students with instruments that fit their hands.
“The biggest challenge is the fact that a pianist cannot take her piano with her when she travels,” he said. “If a student studies on the DS5.5 keyboard at UW-Madison, the day she graduates and leaves Madison she will not find them to play on.
“A breakthrough will come when electronic keyboard manufacturers start to offer these sizes, which will (create) alternative keyboards that easily travel.”
As a professor of pedagogy, who trains pianists to teach others, “one of my dreams is that (alternative keyboards) would be readily available, particularly for developing pianists, younger students, so that they don’t have to go through the trauma of playing an instrument that doesn’t fit,” Johnson said.
She notes that string players already have many alternatives. Young violinists, for example, might start on a half-size violin, then grow into a ¾-size model and eventually a full-size instrument.
Having similar choices for pianists is the goal of the international organization Pianists for Alternatively-Sized Keyboards, or PASK. A petition on the PASK website that the public can sign urges manufacturers to study the options.
“There could be a market for this,” Johnson said. “The time has come, because one size really doesn’t fit all.”