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?
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 Study
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 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.
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 Research
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 Children
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.