The following general principles/techniques for handling large chords are given below:
- Flatten the hand
- Shift the hand away from the body, toward the fall board
- Play multiple notes with one finger
- Redistribute notes across both hands
- Play one or more notes as ornaments (i.e., grace notes)
- Roll the chord
- Leave out one or more notes
- 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#.
T:Chopin Op. 28 No. 7, m. 12
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.
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.
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.
In the Chopin example below, it is not uncommon to hear the chords not marked for arpeggiation played in this way. In the first measure of the example, the second left-hand chord might be played with the F# treated as a grace note, preceding the rest of the chord.
The grace-note portion is not limited to a single note. In the second measure of the Chopin excerpt, the second chord could be played in two parts: the lower E-B followed by the upper E-B.
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.
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.
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.
T:Chopin Op. 28 No. 7, m. 12
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.