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I've seen and attempted to play multiple songs on the piano that include chords that are tenths or sometimes even elevenths or twelfths (rarely), and these chords have four or five notes.

If I were to come across a chord like this, as I can only reach a 9th, what would be the best way to play it? (e.g., inversions, skipping notes, etc.)

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  • Your question is a little confusing to me. What do you mean by "tenths", etc? Do you mean the interval of a 10th, which is easy to reach, or 10 fret stretch? – ggcg Jan 23 at 21:34
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    The tags on this question tell us we're talking about piano. – Laurence Payne Jan 23 at 23:04
  • @ggcg I know a woman who's been a professional organist for 30 years who routinely reharmonizes hymns with jazz chords because it's difficult for her to reach an octave. – chrylis -cautiouslyoptimistic- Jan 24 at 5:30
  • @ggcg yes i mean intervals – HaveProblemsEveryday Jan 24 at 20:27
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    I did not see the tag. If it was there originally I missed it. – ggcg Jan 24 at 20:33
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Summary

The following general principles/techniques for handling large chords are given below:

  1. Flatten the hand
  2. Shift the hand away from the body, toward the fall board
  3. Play multiple notes with one finger
  4. Redistribute notes across both hands
  5. Play one or more notes as ornaments (i.e., grace notes)
  6. Roll the chord
  7. Leave out one or more notes
  8. Re-voice the chord

1. Flatten the hand

Many pianists learn to play on our fingertips. This requires a significant curve to the hand, which makes it harder to open the hand to its full span. Flattening out and playing closer to (or even directly on) the pads of the fingers makes it easier to achieve wide spans.

For additional details with photos see this post.

2. Shift the hand away from the body, toward the fall board

One common error when playing large chords it to play too close to the edge of the keys. When playing with a flatter hand, it's fine for the long fingers, but can leave the thumb and pinky hanging off in space, then requiring twisting to bring them closer to the keys. Shifting the hand away from the body brings the thumb and pinky closer to the keys without sacrificing the natural hand position.

Some related discussion, with photos, can be found here.

3. Play multiple notes with one finger

Sometimes, the layout of the chord will allow a single finger to play two notes. A classic example of this comes from Chopin's Prelude in A Major, Op. 28 No. 7. Measure 12 includes the following right-hand chord, which is played (and often notated) with the thumb covering both the A# and C#.

X:0
T:Chopin Op. 28 No. 7, m. 12
M:None
K:None
L:1/2
[^A^ce^a^c']

4. Redistribute notes across both hands

The header is self-explanatory. For a large right-hand chord, see if one or more notes can be played by the left hand, and vice versa.

Example

In Rachmaninoff's arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee", there are left-hand chords spanning a 10th. For a pianist will a smaller hand-span, or who has difficulty locating the chord quickly enough at high speed, it's straightforward to shift the topmost note of the left hand to the right hand.

Rachmaninoff's "Bumblebee", mm. 10-11 mm. 10-11 (SOURCE: view the "Arrangements and Transcriptions" tab.)

5. Play one or more notes as ornaments (i.e., grace notes)

Especially in large left-hand chords, the bass note can be played alone, followed immediately by the remainder of the chord. This can work in the right hand as well, but is especially common in the left because of the emphasis it gives to the bottom note of the chord.

6. Roll the chord

A very common solution is simply to play the chord as a very rapid arpeggio. This way the entire chord need not be spanned simultaneously, and the hand can shift to maintain a natural position.

Example

In the B section of Chopin's Nocturne in C Minor, Op. 48 No. 1, there are written left-hand chords that span as much as a twelfth. Many of the large chords are marked to be rolled, but others are not. However, note the measure in which all chords are marked as rolled. This suggests that Chopin intended the unmarked chords are to be played as block chords.

Chopin Nocturne op. 48 no. 1 B section excerpt

Valentina Lisitsa in the below recording rolls nearly all the left-hand chords. When she rolls the left hand, she sometimes rolls the right hand and sometimes does not.

7. Leave out one or more notes

Often in large chords, one or more notes will be doubled. (Keep in mind to consider both hands when looking for doublings.) In general, the highest and lowest notes in a chord (both hands included) are the most important, so inner notes are a safer bet.

Using the above Chopin chord as an example, the low A# could be left out, since it's doubled an octave above.

X:0
T:Chopin Op. 28 No. 7, m. 12
M:None
K:None
L:1/2
[^ce^a^c']

8. Re-voice the chord

In some situations, a good result can be obtained by shifting the octave of a note, or changing the relative positions of notes.

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  • Working plan is to amplify this with more notated examples as well as links to posts that put the ideas to use. Suggestions for examples and posts are welcome. – Aaron Jan 23 at 22:51
  • A complete compendium for those of us with smaller hands. Well done! +1. – Tim Jan 24 at 9:13
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    When I took piano lessons, "Leave out one or more notes" and "Re-voice the chord" were only used as utter last resorts, possibly with playing a different piece instead being preferable over them. "Roll the chord" was used instead of "Play one or more notes as ornaments (i.e., grace notes)". – Dekkadeci Jan 24 at 13:54
  • If the problem is your reach, it seems like it would be difficult to keep the highest and lowest notes when leaving out notes. But I guess this helps if your reach is diminished when using middle fingers. – Barmar Jan 24 at 19:43
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For me there is confusion in your using the word "best": There are no strict rules in music.

What I usually do, as an amateur pianist/composer, is to select the notes which have the most distinctive color (can be the 13th you name it), choose a pair of other notes from the chord that either push toward the classic triad, or on the contrary on the triad coloration notes.

Then with the help of left hand bass, I choose on the right hand the one conformation which is more or less the easiest (on which I do not stumble too often), while preserving the color tones I have selected.

For having the easiest conformation, I heavily use inversions.

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Five stars for Aaron's answer. Personally I am not a slave to notation and if something doesn't fit my hand, I don't force it. An injury can put you out of commission for a long time. My teacher couldn't reach tenths but used to do stretching exercises to reach them and she blew out a tendon on her thumb. It took two years to heal. My general rule of thumb is to avoid using the abductors as much as possible. Using them with the flexors creates a dual muscular pull which leads to all sorts of issues.

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    'Rule of thumb'..! – Tim Jan 24 at 9:11

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