Our Story  by David Steinbuhler

The DS Standard®
University Studies
Informative Videos
Evolved Products
A One-Size-Fits-All World of Profound Discrimination
Why We Persist in Our Efforts

A Big Idea
   A chance meeting in the summer of 1991 changed my life.  I was visiting the Shaw Festival in Niagara-On-The-Lake and providentially stayed at the bed and breakfast run by Christopher Donison, the Festival’s music director.  Christopher had a 7/8 keyboard installed in his concert grand piano! An octave on his keyboard was equal to a 7th on the conventional keyboard! While studying music at the University of Victoria, he realized that his small hand size was preventing him from mastering much of the great piano repertoire and had the keyboard built in the late 1970’s.
     I play the piano a little, and the ease with which I adapted to his smaller keyboard amazed me. Christopher explained how a whole new unknown world opened before him when he first got the keyboard, and that this had inspired the concept of creating a second standard.  “This”, I said, “is a big idea!” Christopher’s Testimonial

The DS Standard®
    
I had been developing products in our family owned textile business in Titusville, PA and believed that this was an opportunity placed before me.  I had computer programming experience, and the idea of building keyboards out of a computer data base intrigued me.  Never mind that I knew nothing about the piano industry. I told Christopher I would try to build small keyboards, and he conceived the idea of calling the new proposed keyboard size the Donison-Steinbuhler Standard.  The DS Standard® was born!  To designate this standard on the keyboard itself, Christopher designed a logo which we would attach to the front of the first bass key.

“It IS easy!”
     In the freedom of having no preconceived ideas about how to build keyboards, I started tinkering more or less as a hobby. One thing led to another, and by the summer of 1994, on the loading dock of our textile plant, using a computer driven router, a coworker and I built our first keyboard, which we installed in my mother’s Steinway upright. Linda Gould, an acquaintance of Christopher’s, flew from Victoria, BC to try it. She had given up her dream of becoming a concert artist because of the pain she had experienced when playing.  I will never forget her exclaiming “It IS easy!” after spending an emotional afternoon with the piano. This was my first experience watching a serious pianist discover the smaller keyboard.
     On the spot Linda made the decision to buy a keyboard for her Yamaha grand.  I turned my attention to grand keyboards and the nagging key strength issue. By January 1996, after building prototype keyboards for my Steinway B, I was ready, and we flew to Victoria to measure Linda’s piano.  Two months later, relying heavily on Linda’s technician to mount the action stack and do the fitting, we sold our first DS Standard™ keyboard. Linda’s Testimonial

The Catch 22
    
We knew that before acceptance of the keyboard could become a reality, universities would have to work with and endorse them, so we got a grant and “seeded” five universities with keyboards. There followed a flurry of news media attention. National Canadian TV interviewed Christopher with his keyboard and newspapers, loving the story, ran feature articles.
     The lay person intuitively understands that pianists with different hand sizes need pianos with different keyboard sizes and wonders why it had never been done before. Piano teachers and serious students on the other hand were afraid to touch it. We got no immediate response from the media attention, and no one at the “seeded” universities worked with the keyboards.  Since the keyboards did not exist elsewhere, everyone believed their careers would be hurt by working with them. Acceptance was probably going to take a generation.

What Size Keyboards?
   The lack of response to the media attention was a blessing because much work needed to be done.  I was convinced of the keyboard’s importance; but to make recommendations as to size, there needed to be a study which evaluated the complete range of possible standards.  We began building keyboards of every size and one by one pianists started coming to Titusville to play them.  They were young and old, male and female, pianists who struggled with pain and pianists who simply wanted to play a larger piano repertoire. It was fascinating to observe them experiment with these keyboards and this research gave me a solid basis for determining what standards to recommend. In addition to a 7/8 keyboard we also added a size in the middle dubbed “Universal” which we called a 15/16 keyboard.  For a complete discussion see Our Research.
   We used the nomenclature 7/8 and 15/16 to designate the two sizes, but over the years the use of these fractions proved to be confusing and in 2014 we changed the nomenclature to one that reflects the size of the keyboard’s octaves. Instead of DS-7/8 we now are using DS5.5™ and instead of DS-15/16 we are using DS6.0™ which is indicated in parenthesis below.

Suitable for Professional Use?Bob Fratus crafting keys in our early days
on the loading dock of Horn Textile
     To be taken seriously I also knew that our keyboards needed to be of the highest quality. Early on a keyboard we made for a Steinway C was rejected by a prestigious piano rebuilder in New York City who told us that it was “not suitable for professional use.”  (In those days, we needed to work with rebuilders as our rough frame needed to be fitted to the piano and the action stack mounted.) Their complaint was the springy nature of the highly angled keys in the bass section.
     This led to the development of techniques to measure key strength and the “brace” which proved to completely eliminate the problem. Attention to the engineering aspects of the keys has always been of great interest to me, as I needed to discover whether or not highly professional reduced size keyboards could be built at all. We started displaying our work at Piano Technician Guild conventions where we received valuable scrutiny, feedback, and training. We became proficient in all aspects of action regulation. 
     My Steinway B soon had many sized keyboards, all the way down to a very small one with an overall width of 38 inches; and they demonstrated that, yes indeed, very small keyboards can be built that do not suffer from any loss of power, touch, or response.  This work eventually allowed us to establish a keyboard size suitable for small children with nomenclature DS5.1™ and, lastly, designating the size for the conventional keyboard as DS6.5™ has given us four sizes which taken together now constitutes The Donison-Steinbuhler Standard - The DS Standard

First University StudyDr. Carol Leone
Associate Professor and Head of Piano
Southern Methodist University
with her personal 7/8 (DS5.5™) Keyboard
     Through the inspiration of Dr. Carol Leone, Southern Methodist University became the first university to purchase and study an alternative size piano keyboard. In the fall of 2000 we fitted the Steinway B in her studio with a 7/8 (DS5.5™) keyboard. She and several of her students started working with and performing on it, enjoying remarkable results. By the end of the school year, Carol had personally committed herself to using the 7/8 (DS5.5™) keyboard, believing that its use would revolutionize traditional teaching of children and small-handed pianists and would offer relief to pianists with injuries related to long hours of playing the conventional keyboard. For a full discussion of her findings, please read her article Goldilocks Had a Choice[1] published in the American Music Teacher.
     Carol Leone’s desire to demonstrate these findings at other universities inspired us to build a keyboard that had adjustable features which would allow it to be installed in the Steinway concert grand pianos of different universities. We wanted to see how practical and transportable such a keyboard might be.  By the spring of 2002 the keyboard was ready, and Carol scheduled recital demonstrations at five universities. I took the keyboard to the universities in advance to see how well it would fit.  We found that it could be adjusted and regulated to play very well; and that spring the University of Oklahoma, Baylor, Rice, Texas Tech, and the University of Nebraska - Lincoln were witness to recitals given on a Steinway concert grand with a 7/8 (DS5.5™) keyboard.

Interchangeable Keyboards
    
Although it has not proven to be practical for an artist to take her DS Keyboard with her to be installed in the pianos of different venues, the experience we gained developing the adjustable features was valuable.  It gave us the ability to build a replacement keyboard that can easily be installed in a grand piano without changing anything on the piano. This means it is now easy for a university to acquire an alternative size keyboard for the piano on their concert stage that can be interchanged with the original conventional keyboard. Once a new keyboard has been installed, it can be exchanged back and forth with the conventional keyboard in just a matter of minutes.  This has opened the way for universities to provide piano keyboards that best fit their students’ hands and to study all their practical ramifications.

Growing University Interest and ResearchNicole's-Recital04
   Southern Methodist University purchased a 7/8 (DS5.5™) keyboard for their concert hall and two uprights with 7/8 (DS5.5™) keyboards for practice rooms.  Under the direction of Dr. Lora Deahl, Texas Tech University is working with three 7/8 (DS5.5™) keyboards: one in Lora Deahl’s studio Steinway B, one for their concert hall and one in an upright in a practice room. Lora started her studies by measuring the preferences of pianists of different ages, genders, and hand sizes for the conventional versus the 7/8 keyboards. Students at both SMU and Texas Tech are performing recitals on them, and the two universities have collaborated with each other in joint recitals.  Their studies are demonstrating the ease and practicality of working with alternative keyboards.  SMU Student Testimonials
   Dr. Pamela Mia Paul and Dr. Kris Chesky are working with 15/16 (DS6.0™) keyboards at the University of North Texas. Kris is director of the Texas Center for Music and Medicine which initiated formal research to address the increasing evidence that a high percentage of pianists struggle with arm, wrist and hand pain and have associated medical problems.  They are endeavoring to understand why these problems occur and whether the risk will be reduced with the use of alternative keyboards.
   Using 7/8 (DS5.5™) keyboards at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Dr. Brenda Wristen also initiated a formal study of the factors that cause injuries among pianists.  She collaborates with Dr. Susan Hallbeck in the department of engineering to electronically measure the stress in the muscles of pianists as they play the different size keyboards. Results of their study are showing a big difference in levels of fatigue.

Working with ChildrenAaron Kurz warming up on a
 7/8 (DS5.5™) Keyboard
  
Dr. Carol Leone again led the way as the first teacher to conduct studies with children. In January of 2005 she began teaching young Aaron Kurz who had an upright piano with a 7/8 keyboard on which to practice in his home.  Carol wrote, “...I have performed a preliminary study with one student, ten year old Aaron Kurz, who after one year of study on the 7/8 piano keyboard, performed a Rachmaninov prelude at the national MTNA 2006 conference.  His powerful performance of a piece previously reserved for large-handed pianists broke new ground and astounded those in attendance.  One well-known American piano professor was brought to tears by sheer wonderment at a child possessing the ability to present this advanced repertoire by virtue of having a keyboard that suited a child-sized hand.”
   Aaron has since grown, made the transition to the conventional keyboard, and has gone on to be a winner in two international piano competitions. 
   In the Fall of 2007 Southern Methodist University initiated a research project to study “the pedagogical and physiological benefits to children who use the 7/8 keyboard for study and practice.  The study will define performance metrics and observe, measure, and report results.”

The National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy 2007
   Tradition and Transformation: Learning, Playing, and Teaching Outside the Box
  
The first day of the conference featured the use of the 7/8 (DS-5.5) keyboard in a concert by Dr. Carol Leone playing a Steinway concert grand that was fitted with the smaller keyboard. After the concert, the piano was on display in a separate room so that all in attendance could personally experience the keyboard.

  Two informative videos about the 7/8 keyboard were produced by Mario Ajero.
  See Video Part 1    

 

  • Dr. Carol Leone playing the conventional keyboard and then immediately playing the same piece on the 7/8 keyboard. Switching keyboards is a skill she easily learned and is similar to playing the viola and then the violin.
  • Dr. Carol Leone demonstrating to the audience after her performance the shape of her hand playing chords on a conventional keyboard and then on the 7/8 keyboard.
  • A demonstration of the ease of removing the conventional keyboard from the Steinway concert grand and replacing it with the 7/8 keyboard.

  See Video Part 2

  • Dr. Anita Renfroe from Millersville University playing the 7/8 keyboard for the first time with her comments.
  • Sarah Evans and  Dr. Peter Davis from Bob Jones University share the results of their study which tested the ability of pianists to adapt to playing on a smaller keyboard. Pianists who practiced one hour a day for five days found significant improvement in accuracy in a short amount of time. An attitudinal survey revealed that pianists adapted more quickly than they had expected.

Another Powerful Demonstration
    
At the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy 2009, Dr. Kathleen Riley demonstrated her work with ProformaVision, a new product that monitors a pianist’s performance with video and muscle tension, giving real time visual feedback. Its use is helping teachers prove what works in an indisputable manner. Juilliard Piano Department Chair Veda Kaplinsky stated, “Both Kathleen Riley’s research and ProformaVision are a tremendous help to our teaching profession. Finally we are able to see what is happening as our students play.  It is irrefutable proof of what is correct in terms of piano technique.” Former MTNA President Gail Berenson stated, “ProformaVision enables students and their teachers to finally see what is taking place physiologically as they play.  They are able to make changes in their physical approach to the instrument (in order) to achieve greater efficiency and effortlessness in their playing.”
     The highlight of the conference for me came when Dr. Carol Leone played the Chopin G Minor Ballade first on our 7/8 (DS5.5™) Keyboard and then on a conventional keyboard after Kathleen had fitted Carol with the powerful ProformaVision tool (shown at right in the circled area). The muscle tension feedback shown in the graphs is remarkable.  Normal stress patterns for the piece played on the 7/8 keyboard became off the chart readings when played on the conventional keyboard. This again is scientific proof showing the importance of providing pianists with keyboards appropriate to the size of their hands.

First International Sale Using Our New Technician’s KitWarwick Dalton installing
Rhonda Boyle's 7/8 (DS5.5™) Keyboard
    
Rhonda Boyle of Melbourne, Australia first contacted me in January of 2007. Her persistence and determination to get a 7/8 (DS5.5™) keyboard for her piano pushed me to address the problem of getting the very precise measurements needed to build a keyboard that will fit in a piano located overseas. I needed a foolproof way of enabling technicians around to world to get these measurements where accuracy is essential.  2008 became the year of the Technician’s Kit where I developed and refined the tools to do the job. In November I flew to Australia with the kit, met with Rhonda, measured her piano, and made the decision to use Warwick Dalton as our technician in Melbourne. I flew home, put the data into our computer, built Rhonda’s keyboard, and shipped it to her, where Warwick did the installation.  Warwick wrote back saying, “The installation of Rhonda’s 7/8 action was pretty much flawless... four hours of regulation was all that it required to bring it to perfection, a lot less than some new pianos require. Rhonda is delighted! Look forward to the next installation!”
     Rhonda’s was our first keyboard outside North America. To read a piano technician’s guild news article by Warwick about his experience see First DS Keyboard installation. For more detailed information and pricing see Grand Retrofit.

First Piano Manufacturer Installing Our KeyboardsCharles R. Walter Studio Upright
built with a DS Keyboard
   The Walter Piano Company was the first manufacturer allowing us to sell their pianos worldwide that were built with our keyboards.  Since we do not retrofit upright pianos, this filled the need to provide upright pianos with smaller keyboards.  Our customers select the model, style, and finish of the Walter upright they want, we supply the DS Keyboard size they want, and the Walter Piano Company builds the piano.
   Walter Piano is a family owned company located in the USA that has built an impeccable  reputation for the quality of their products.  Their uprights are known for the richness of their tone and fullness of their bass. Their long keys are especially suited to accommodate the higher angles of our DS Keyboards. They pay close attention to every aspect of fine instrument building, and we are pleased to be working with them.
   We recently shipped a Walter Studio Upright with a DS Keyboard overseas to Sydney, Australia and established another major city with a 7/8 (DS5.5™) Keyboard that pianists are welcome to experience! For more detailed information about the pianos and their pricing see Walter Uprights.

How Far We Have Come
  
Christopher Donison has written, “There are two great secrets in the world of piano playing. The first is how much easier the instrument is to play with larger hands and the second is how impossible it can be with smaller hands. If one can divide the world into roughly two constituencies - a smaller half and a larger half - one can see that the larger half never really knows what the difficulties of their small-handed counterparts are; and the smaller half never really finds out how much easier all the difficulties are with larger hands. This is because small-handed people never wake up the next morning with larger hands no matter how hard they may pray for that to happen; and the larger handed people have never experienced the difficulties of the smaller-handed people. Their hands were already big enough long before they were attempting repertoire that was challenging enough to betray the secret.”[2]
  
Today, for the first time in the history of the piano, there is a growing list of universities that own and are studying alternative size keyboards. Also, for the first time in the history of the piano, there is a growing list of pianists who own and use a 7/8 (DS5.5™) keyboard.  Rhonda Boyle recently conducted a survey of many of these pianists. You can read the questionnaire she used and the results she obtained in her paper Hand Size and the Piano Keyboard[3].   Rhonda has also started a website dedicated to presenting all the relevant data and arguments for smaller keyboards :Piano Keyboard Size: A Level Playing Field?
   Taken as a whole, this accumulating evidence demonstrates that pianists in general are locked in a one-size-fits-all world of profound discrimination. Students who study piano are mostly female, and yet universities provide only pianos with large size keyboards. When we step back to reflect on this, is it not astounding to realize that universities around the world do not provide their students with instruments that are appropriate to the size of their hands? Today, slowly, they are becoming aware of the two great secrets Christopher Donison discovered when he first got his 7/8 keyboard.

Where We Are GoingBob Larson is the builder of our CNC router
which is processing a DS Keyboard frame in
our shop on the second floor of Horn Textile
  
We now know that the smaller keyboards work and grand pianos are easy to retrofit. But, this world of the piano is tied to tradition and will not change easily.  How will we ever overcome this impasse?  One of the main drivers probably will be the growing awareness that alternative keyboards greatly eliminate piano-related pain. I do not think it is too strong a statement to say that it is really a question of human rights.  Again and again, pianists have expressed to us how thankful they are to have this option.  Over the years this feedback has kept us going.
   Interestingly, many of the inquires we receive are requests for smaller electronic keyboards.  I know that as awareness and acceptance grows one day an electronic keyboard manufacturer will provide them. The ability to take your 7/8 keyboard with you when you travel would be liberating!
   The Chinese could be a huge factor. A high percentage of the students who study piano are Chinese, and their hand spans measure at the small end of the spectrum.  It would seem to be natural for their piano industry to lead the way. For an industry that has generally been in decline for decades, promotion of the keyboards could be a most welcome boon.

Why We Persist in Our Efforts
   Dr. Carol Leone spoke for all of us who are working on this project with a story:
Yesterday I gave an audition lesson to an incoming graduate student. She played a challenging Romantic work with a lot of struggle, even though she intentionally left out many notes to accommodate her small hands.  I then found out that she is an injured pianist, with chronic carpal tunnel and also nerve damage in her right arm. Then she told me that she came to SMU specifically to study on the 7/8 keyboard.  So, over to the 7/8 Steinway we went and she proceeded to play passages from her piece perfectly with all of the notes! She looked at me incredulously and burst into tears, apologizing over how emotional she felt and exclaiming how she has been trying for years to “discipline myself to stay away from Romantic repertoire."
   More than two decades have passed since I first met Christopher Donison with his vision of a second keyboard standard.  Giving thanks to the Lord for the many blessings and opportunities we have enjoyed, I patiently ask, “What next?”   The Lord willing, I’m available.
   It is clear that piano manufacturers must be involved.  In order to expedite that, Steinbuhler & Company has relinquished the intellectual property rights it has developed through its patents at the margins of keyboard manufacture (specifically its patents for the “brace” and the “key turn before the fall-board” which ensure adequate key strength in the 7/8 (DS5.5™) and 3/4 (DS5.1™) sizes and for the use of key-leveling plates).
   Pressure is growing beneath the surface, and, although it may take decades, at some point the use of alternative keyboards will become commonplace.  In the meantime building them has become routine for us as we remain committed to this exciting adventure, believing that we are witnessing the beginnings of an ergonomic revolution.

Notes
1. This article is from American Music Teacher, Volume 52, No. 6, June/July 2003, with permission from the MTNA
2. From Christopher Donison’s web site: DS Keyboards
3. Hand Size and the Piano Keyboard is published in the proceedings of the 9th Australasian Piano Pedagogy Conference

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