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Sometimes the bass and tenor have a 10th or 12th interval so obviously I cant reach that with one hand on some chords but is the general way to play a chorale on piano using two notes per hand? Most of the time I find it easier to play the top 3 notes on the right hand but perhaps I should get into the habit of trying to keep the bass and tenor in the right hand where possible?

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Abstract:

Your fingers are not people.

Explanation:

You do what you need to do for what works best on the instrument you’re using and how you’re playing. The two notes on the top staff and two on the bottom for a chorale are meant to easily distinguish people and who’s singing which vocal line. But since your fingers are not people, they need not follow the same pattern.

Case Study:

I found this out the hard way, and it was a miracle when I decided, “Huh, just because it’s written with two notes in the right hand and two in the left doesn’t mean I necessarily need to play it that way.”

The piece where this was clearest to me was the tune God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. Take a look:

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen with two fingering styles

The top line is the way it is most often notated for chorale singing. Since it is for singing, it makes the most sense to notate it that way to keep the voices separate and easy to follow. The bottom line is the way that I played it on piano. The section that is circled (second full measure) shows where the most obvious change is felt in the hands.

In the top line, the left hand will probably be doing rapid stretches—or if not stretches, then far more movement than feels efficient. In the bottom line, the left hand remains much more static.

Personally, when it came to accompanying singers with this tune, it was much more difficult to perform the top line than the bottom line.

Conclusion:

Your instinct is correct: if there are occasional, technically impossible stretches in the left hand (e.g., intervals of 10ths and 12ths), which require deviating from a strict interpretation of the notation and its performance on the keyboard, then it stands to reason that other scenarios would benefit from swapping fingers and voices.

N.B. if your fingers are actually people, my apologies.

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    Organists sometimes play the bass on the pedals, the tenor and alto in the left hand on one manual, and the soprano in the right hand on a separate manual.
    – Ian Goldby
    Feb 18, 2022 at 9:53
  • @IanGoldby - Is measure 1, beat 2 a feasible reach in one hand for an organist (10th between the tenor and alto)?
    – Neal
    Feb 18, 2022 at 12:12
  • Perhaps for some organists. If you couple the pedals to the LH manual it doesn't matter anyway. Not that I'm an organist - they are a breed apart :-)
    – Ian Goldby
    Feb 18, 2022 at 12:50
  • @IanGoldby: Out of curiosity, have you ever seen hymnals with an organist part notated in such fashion? That would certainly seem the most appropriate way of playing the parts, but trying to learn--much less sightread--left-hand parts which are split between staves would be much harder than having parts grouped according to playing hand.
    – supercat
    Feb 18, 2022 at 16:23
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    @IanGoldby I'm an amateur organist (I started learning at age 50, and I'm 62 now.) So I'm not much of an expert, but I don't think any organist would make that reach. You're correct that sometimes the tenor and alto are played on one manual, but that's considered a "hard trick." It's very difficult to read the music that way. The "normal" way to play a choral-style hymn is soprano-alto with right hand, tenor with left hand, bass with feet. Then make adjustments when the reaches are big or the fingering is tricky.
    – B. Goddard
    Feb 18, 2022 at 16:23
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In four part writing good voice spacing often has the top three voices fairly close together with a large separation from the bass. The tenor part may still be notated on a bass clef, but playing the three close upper voices in the right hand becomes convenient if not necessary.

Sometimes it's hard to read such passages. Usually it's the tenor moving too far from the bass. But it seems to me, with time practicing, you get a sense for when the tenor separated from bass, usually using several ledger lines above bass clef, means a close voicing of three tones in right hand. If the style is like a hymn or chorale, you can often assume from context alone what the complete three note chord in the right hand should be.

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Chorales tend to be written with two parts in the treble staff and two in the bass, so it's natural to play them with two parts in each hand. However, it's perfectly fine to play three voices in the right hand when it's easier or necessary.

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If you're just sight-reading stuff that is written with the top two voices in treble and the lower two in bass, it might be easiest to just "play as written", meaning right hand gets the top two, left hand the lower two.

Oppositely, if you've played through a thing a few times, and can anticipate some awkward stretches in the left hand... sure, why not "cheat" and play those in the right?

Intermediately, I suppose one could set one's mind to play all the tenor parts in the right hand, even in sight reading. This is not toooo dangerous, because usually the tenor is pretty close to the alto. So, ok, why not?

(My own default, because my left hand can reach a "good" tenth alright, is to just play-as-written...)

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