Has someone created a list of accepted modifications to make certain figures easier to play for a performer with smaller hands?

In the WTC (Das Wohltemperierte Klavier) there are intervals that are quite awkward to play. In the first fugue I find a lot of weird intervals that do not flow under the fingers, and it requires a repositioning of the hand, unlike most of the fugue, where virtually all the notes just fall under the current position. Part of this is due to me just choosing the wrong fingerings early on but some are simply part of the scores.

For example, in measure 17.5L There is an octave span D to D and the top D goes to E, then walks back down. This clearly requires using the thumb if one is to hold the lower D; or one could, if they can reach it, hold the top D with the index finger (very awkward).

In measure 19.5 the exact same motive exists, but Bach pushes the E D C walk down into the right hand.

Now, I can manage these easily using the thumb, but for people with small hands I don't see how they can properly play these without releasing the lower note to free them up.

I find a lot of issues like this in Bach, where it just does not make sense fingering wise. While I can manage it, there just seems to be stumbling points that do not flow naturally (and I do not know if it's my fault or just part of the music). Usually if I figure out an easier way to play it then it causes problems before or after getting in to it so the problem really is not eliminated.

I feel this is just the nature of the counterpoint, and fingering difficulties are accepted. The piece is played slow enough that these things can be managed....

But I wonder how smaller hands deal with these problems? If there are certain accepted solutions, then I imagine they could be applied to larger hands to make things easier.

I realize that the keyboards of the past were smaller, so many of these issues did not exist, but some clearly did (an octave, for example, with the melody leaping up requires the thumb to play consecutive notes, and this cannot be done with legato if the lowest note is held with the pinky).

Has someone created a list of accepted modifications to make certain figures easier to play? (e.g., one can shorten the bass note (pinky) to remove the stretch if it does not interfere musically)

3 Answers 3


There are general strategies for pianists with smaller hands, and they apply to Bach just as any other composer. In no particular order:

  1. Use of pedal;
  2. Dropping one or more notes;
  3. Adjusting hand/arm/body position;
  4. Adjusting fingering, including hand-swapping;
  5. Arpeggiation of chords/wide intervals.

The particular solution for a particular passage is, of course, open for debate, but ultimately is at the discretion of the performer to achieve the effect they find most desireable.

To take your example of WTC I Fugue in C Major (BWV 846), m. 17.5L:

Use of pedal

For a pianist not averse to pedal in Bach, one solution is a very brief, light pedal to hold the D3 so it can be released while playing the E4-D4. The pedal would be depressed just after the right hand G5 and release when arriving on beat 4.

Dropping one or more notes

The only drop option is the left hand D3. In this specific instance, dropping the D3 is technically equivalent to the above, but for no-pedal-in-Bach purists. By giving D3 a slight emphasis but then bringing out the following moving parts, the small gap before E3 will only be noticed by the most ardent listeners.

Adjusting hand/arm/body position

Measure 17 does not lend itself to this type of solution. However, a hypothetical solution for a pianist who can manage a brief ninth, by releasing D4 a moment early, the subsequent E4-D4 could be played by "grabbing" the E4 with the thumb and then sliding to the D4. With practice, the D4 could probably be cleanly articulated.

Adjusting fingering, including hand-swapping

Though not applicable to the passage, Bach clearly recognizes it's usefulness in bar 19, as pointed out in the OP.

Arpeggiation of chords/wide intervale

Also not relevant to 18.5L, and less useful perhaps in Bach than in Chopin, where vertical structures play a more prominent role.

For more on the topic of adapting piano music to smaller hands, see What is the best way to play a chord larger than your hand?


Fingering is a complex problem. Because of their innate anatomical differences, no two musicians will agree on the fingering patterns for the same musical phrase. The best place to start is with the late Rosalyn Tureck's "An Introduction to the Performance of Bach". Her text may be at times daunting and academic, but the effort taken in understanding what she is trying to say will be well rewarded.

My own approach is to feel how a phrase will fit in the hand, and how that fingering will flow into the next phrase.

  • 1
    Everyone is different but it doesn't mean everything is different. People still have 5 fingers per hand, still the same general physical characteristics, etc. There are obviously going to be some general principles involved. I'll take a look at the book.
    – user58289
    Aug 31, 2019 at 21:36
  • I tried finding Tureck's book, but it is out of print both in the U.S. and EU. It may be available at some university or college library. Sep 1, 2019 at 16:33
  • I was able to find it from piano sheets. someone scanned it. I'm working through it now. So far haven't really seen anything but I'm only a few pages in.
    – user58289
    Sep 3, 2019 at 16:44

I doubt whether anyone with any musical credibility would be arrogant enough to start rewriting the WTC for beginners to play.

In any case, the bars you mention are not the most problematical. Compare the next-to-last bar in the right hand where to play the notes as written you have to play an octave, 9th, and 10th with your 5th finger while holding down the thumb. The alterative is to play a chord with both the 7th and 9th from the bass note with the left hand, which is potentially an even bigger stretch.

If you can't hold all the notes, you have to let go of some of them. That's all there is to it.

But arguably all this is irrelevant, because the first fugue looks like organ music, and if you play the bass part with your feet none of these fingering issues arise.

My reasons for making that assertion is that the exposition is in the "non-standard" order subject, answer, answer, subject. That puts the final entry of the subject in the bass, which is common in organ fugues.

The bass part itself divides into sections separated by rests which make each bass entry of the subject a significant event. After the exposition, the remainder of the bass part has the typical structure of a prominent part in Bach's counterpoint - i.e. it enters again (bar 10) with the answer followed by a short passage leading to a cadence (bar 14) and then starts again (bar 15) with an identical entry to the previous one, but this time with a much longer continuation which eventually arrives at a pedal point on the dominant (bars 21-22) leading to a longer pedal point on the tonic to end the piece (bars 25-27). The whole of bars 21-28 is effectively the final cadence of the piece.

There is no other keyboard instrument of Bach's day which could sustain the final four-bar bass note in a slow tempo (counting 8 beats in a bar, with the 8th notes at about 100 on a metronome) without striking the note again, and for the last two bars there is no way to repeat the note without it being blatantly obvious. Of course the organ can sustain notes indefinitely.

This isn't the only organ fugue in WTC - the C sharp minor of Book 1 is even more idiomatic organ music, with a shift from one manual to two for the exposition of the second subject at bar 35, shifting the registration up another notch for the exposition of the third subject at bar 52, and finally and rattling the church windows when the first subject reappears on the lowest notes of the pedal board at bar 73. Once again the end of the fugue has long pedal notes in the bass, and one of the early editors (Czerny, claiming to take advice from Beethoven) was so mystified as to how to make that work on the piano that he suggested a diminuendo to end the piece ppp. Well, everybody has weird ideas sometimes...

  • The penultimate bar is quite easy... and I said nothing about beginners. I mentioned hands. Some people have much smaller hands and everyone's hands are different. I'd expect there to be well travels rules about what works and what doesn't and how to make it work. I think the fact that it is organ is irrelevant EXCEPT that if you are right about the bass it being played by the pedals then it makes all that moot. While I too have came to the idea that it probably was meant for organ due to the sustained notes, it ultimate also is moot if one wants to play it without the pedal.
    – user58289
    Aug 31, 2019 at 21:33
  • I think one would want to be as conforming to the scores as possible even if there are technical reasons why they don't have to be. The problem is, with my big hands, if I struggle in some places, how can anyone with really small hands conform? It seems they can't and have to sacrifice a lot. If it's ok for them then it means I could also "cheat" and it might speed things up.
    – user58289
    Aug 31, 2019 at 21:35
  • 1
    "Arrogance" is an unfortunate choice of words. In my own case, arthritis has been progressing in both hands resulting in the necessity for changing strategies for different finger combinations. Bach himself always emphasized improvisation. Sep 1, 2019 at 16:36
  • 1
    @FrancisPhillips I do not believe that the score was the bible as it is now. If one looks at Bach's work it looks more like templates to provide one with a foundation.We know that modifying the score was a thing back then but now few people do. I imagine, for example, endings were almost always improvised because they are irrelevant in that they do not change the structure(since they are the end). Any congruent ending would work. I imagine similar things happened within the music to some degree(intervals changed). Music was more "experimental" and not so "commercial".
    – user58289
    Sep 3, 2019 at 16:47

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