Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Scandalous Overtures — Rachmaninoff: Reborn Through Hypnosis

The human hand, with its four fingers and opposable thumb, is a miracle of design, function, dexterity, and beauty.

The human hand contains 29 major and minor bones (though many people have a few more) and 29 major joints. Each human hand has at least 123 named ligaments and 34 muscles that move the fingers and thumb: 17 of these muscles are located in the palm of the hand and 18 of them in the forearm.(A fascinating fact, at least to a non-medico like myself: there are no muscles in our fingers.The muscles that move our fingers are located in our palms and mid-forearms.These muscles are connected to our finger bones by tendons, which yank and pull and move our fingers in the same way that strings move a marionette.)

Actual hand size is as variable as every other aspect of the human body, and while we will not – for now – address the urban legends surrounding thumb size in men, I would offer up a few observations about overall hand size.

There are some occupations for which large hands are a downright liability. It seems to me that superfine work like building circuits, cutting diamonds, defusing bombs, and working as a mohel (a practitioner of the “covenant of circumcision”) favors a small, still hand.

Then there are activities for which big hands are an asset. In basketball, for example, all sorts of size matter. The biggest hands in the NBA currently belong to Giannis Antetokounmpo, a 20 year-old, 6’11” forward who plays for the Milwaukee Bucks. The hands of the “Greek Freak” (as he is known) span, from the tip of his outstretched thumb-to-pinky, nearly 15 inches! (By comparison, Michael Jordan’s hands spans 11.375”, and Wilt Chamberlain’s 11.5”.)

Likewise, hand size is now a major factor in evaluating quarterbacks, who often have to play in wet, windy, and cold environments. Johnny Manziel, the highly touted rookie on the Cleveland Browns, stands 5’11” tall (short for a quarterback), but his huge hands are seen as a major asset on the field.

Where is this going, you ask?

This is where it’s going.…

There is a perception among non-pianists that a pre-requisite for being a decent pianist is great big hands. But, in fact, big hands are not a pianistic necessity. The magnificent Daniel Barenboim, who stands 5’6” tall, can stretch but a ninth – that is, an octave plus one key. Nevertheless, no one plays with more power, crackle, and finesse. The composer and pianist Alexander Scriabin stood but five feet tall and could stretch only an octave, yet he was considered, in his lifetime, to be among the handful of “greatest pianists”. The in-all-ways superb Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha stood under five feet tall and had the stubbiest of fingers. But she had a wide palm and a long stretch between her thumbs and index fingers, a stretch that allowed her to compensate for the length of her fingers. There was no repertoire – including Rachmaninoff’s own concerti – that she didn’t play brilliantly.Her recording of Isaac Albéniz’ next-to-impossible Iberia remains a miracle of taste and virtuosity.

Having said all of this, having big hands can admittedly make many aspects of piano playing easier. The poster-child for the big-handed pianist is none-other-than Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff, who lived from 1873 to 1943. The Rock was an imposing 6’6” in height and had what were arguably the biggest hands in pianistic history, each reportedly capable of spanning an incredible 13th; that is, an octave plus a sixth: a distance of nearly two octaves! Incredibly – and even tragically – there is not a single extant movie or video of Rachmaninoff playing the piano. Consequently, we are dependent on written descriptions and recollections if we want to get a sense of how he addressed the piano.

According to the ordinarily snarky Harold Schonberg (for 20 years the senior music critic for The New York Times):

“Rachmaninoff would come on stage stiff and severe, never smiling, his hair cropped as close as a convict’s. He played with a minimum of physical exertion. From his fingers came an indescribable tone, warm, reaching into every corner of the hall, capable of infinite modulation. Those marvelous fingers seemed incapable of striking a wrong note. In an age of spectacular technicians, Rachmaninoff was peerless.”

High praise from the toughest of critics. Nevertheless, Rachmaninoff’s genius did not preclude him from suffering a paralyzing bout of depression between 1897 and 1900, during which he composed not a note and played the piano hardly at all. Had he not recovered from his depression and began composing with the proverbial bang, Rachmaninoff would, today, be remembered for nothing.

Tune in to Scandalous Overtures on OraTV for the scoop on how Rachmaninoff dug himself out of his depression and returned to world of the living, hands and all.

Watch the episode below:


  1. Great story, and vaguely reassuring to us duffer pianists that even the great Rachmaninoff needed a little musical help from time to time.