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I'm learning to play the piano and I'm loving it. I've just started learning to play some pieces with two hands, but I am unfortunately running into an issue with my left hand: I cannot spread my fingers a full octave while so many songs require it! I can reach two keys that have just 6 keys between them, like the first and the last key of an octave, but I cannot reach the same key on two different octaves. Playing the keys that I can reach instead sounds off to me. What key(s) can I play instead to make it sound decent?

Note: I only started playing music a few weeks ago. It would be very nice if you could explain or avoid technical terms and symbols, as I just know the basics of reading sheet music and often require my (digital) piano's software to help me interpret it still.

  • I find it silly how often pianists use simultaneous octaves. It doesn't really add anything musically, just thickens up the sound (which, when playing with other musicians, is often actually for the worse). I'd suggest that when playing alone, just play only the lower note, and when somebody plays a bass instrument only play the upper note. – leftaroundabout Aug 17 '18 at 14:32
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You don't say how old you are. Children who start learning piano often don't have hands big enough to stretch an octave easily. For adults, it's possible the problem is simply that your hand isn't flexible enough yet. An "average sized" adult keyboard player would be able to stretch a 9th or 10th (one or two keys more than an octave) without any problems.

You also say this is a problem with your left hand - if you are right handed, and you can stretch an octave with your right hand, that also suggests it's more about flexibility than just size.

Try playing just the lower note of the octave with your left hand. If the left hand is a mixture of octaves and smaller intervals that you can reach, it might sound better if you only play the bottom note of the smaller intervals as well - just experiment.

There are collections of studies and exercises written for students who can't stretch octaves - for example https://imslp.org/wiki/25_Etudes_faciles_et_progressives%2C_Op.100_(Bertini%2C_Henri) and https://imslp.org/wiki/32_%C3%89tudes_faciles_et_sans_octaves%2C_Op.315_(Battmann%2C_Jacques-Louis). Try Googling "piano studies without octaves" to find more. Pieces like that will help to develop your playing skills without over-stretching your hands, and you will probably find that after a while you can stretch octaves comfortably.

Final warning - DON'T try to fix this "problem" with "stretching exercises," unless you are being taught by somebody who understands what they are asking you to do! Playing keyboards is perfectly safe, but if keep trying to do things that are physically too hard for you, it is possible to permanently damage your hands. Don't go there - in particular, if attempting to play something hurts you, then stop trying.

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    Superb answer - worth more than+1. Underlining the 'don't try to stretch too much'. Try also to avoid stretchy left hands in pieces you're learning at the moment. A teacher will help a lot here. – Tim Aug 17 '18 at 12:51
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    I don't know if an average size adult could stretch a 10th. Perhaps an average-sized man. A woman's hands tend to be smaller. I am 5'8" and have large hands for a woman and a large spread, having played piano since the age of 3. When I was 12, my piano teacher remarked on the size of my hands and said that my bones grew further apart since I was playing so much while growing. I can stretch a 10th but not comfortably. While playing, I could probably play a 9th easily. – Heather S. Aug 17 '18 at 13:00
  • Thanks. I'll try playing just the lowest note. I'm an adult woman. I can play a 9th on my right hand easily, but it is incredibly difficult on my left. Hopefully it will get better over time. – Belle-Sophie Aug 17 '18 at 13:36
  • I don't understand what's wrong with stretching exercises, could you explain? I do them every day before playing guitar, and they really help a lot. Not sure why the same wouldn't be true for piano. Stretching properly is a great way to improve flexibility. – Apologize and reinstate Monica Aug 17 '18 at 15:21
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    There's nothing wrong with doing stretching exercises correctly and with proper supervision. But just trying to force yourself to do stretches that are too big for you on a piano keyboard can cause damage to tendons and ligaments which are effectively incurable, and debilitating enough to make "serious" keyboard playing impossible for the rest of your life. Even professionally trained musicians can screw up big time over this. Read elenaklionsky.com/article.html as a warning. – user19146 Aug 17 '18 at 17:05
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Convert the octave to a fifth. I write my own music and I can verify I rarely (if ever) use octaves. As leftroundabout mentioned it only thickens the noise, and with the synthesizer instruments I use, those can actually introduce all sorts of unwanted and unexpected extra frequencies.

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