The male hand as default …?

8th October 2019 | Musings | 0 comments

At the Edinburgh Book Festival I went to hear Caroline Criado Perez talk about her book ‘Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men‘. The book has just won the 2019 Royal Society Science Book Prize.

The book’s mission is simple but profoundly thought-provoking: it aims to make us aware of how many things are designed with the male user as the default. The size of mobile phones; the height of seatbelts in cars; car crash dummies used in safety testing which are based on the height and weight of the average man; heart attack symptoms which may be missed in women because their heart attack symptoms are different from men’s; technology which doesn’t respond properly to the higher-pitched female voice; the design of toilets in public buildings; the placing of high shelves in supermarkets, or of high straps for passengers to hold onto on the subway …. the list is long. Once you’ve heard the author talking about this, you start to see examples everywhere.

So the other day I was learning some piano music, trying to follow the fingering devised by the editor. Some composers suggest their own fingering. Many don’t, and it’s customary for publishers to employ an editor (often a well-known pianist) to devise a fingering, which is printed in the published score and treated as gospel by generations of amateur pianists.

Once again I was thinking that the printed fingering didn’t really suit my small hand and that I’d need to find a different solution.

And suddenly it dawned on me: piano fingering is probably another example of Caroline Criado Perez’s theory. The ‘default’ composer is male; male editors have been the default, and the male hand is likely to have been the standard.

Now, I realise that there are men with small hands and women with large ones. Nevertheless it must be true that the average male hand is bigger and stronger than the average female’s, and has a wider stretch. I am sure editors do their best to find a fingering that works for ‘the average hand’, but I somehow doubt that many of them have taken the time to consult female pianists about how comfortable the fingerings are for them. Yes, I’m pretty sure that the male hand is the default.

Claude Debussy was right: ‘Cherchons nos doigtés!’ Let us find our own fingerings!

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