When You Don’t Have Rachmaninov’s Hands

I have always felt that a pianist should ideally be able reach a comfortable tenth. But I can only reach a ninth, which I think is generally quite a disadvantage for me. I should add that it’s not even a comfortable ninth. It’s a ninth where my fingers are on the very edges of the keys.

Yeah, I have small hands. And I’m not liking it…

But I’m not writing this article to rant about how this sucks so much. I‘m writing this to show you how I’ve worked my way around this little disadvantage of mine over the past few years.

I’m going to show you how I play (or don’t play) certain big chords, and also my reason for playing them that way. The idea is simply to let you pick my brain and gain some new insights. At the end of the article, you might just come up with some new and more efficient/effective ways of playing big chords yourself.

For those of you with hands bigger than Rachmaninov’s… Go away!

I’ll use a recent video of mine for examples:

– From 0:18 to 0:36 –

Chord 1: I’ve chosen to simply omit the top C.

If I try to play the full chord by rolling it instead, while also keeping the top C aligned with the E in the RH, where should I change the pedal? I cannot change it when the LH thumb arrives at C, because I would clearly lose the bass note here. The bass note is important.

So should I change the pedal at the bass note then?

If I do, I would have to change it fast since my pinky is going to leave that key very quickly. (And no, I do not intend to do a slow roll here, that’s just bad taste in my opinion.) But that isn’t the only issue here. There is another with the RH.

I have 2 options.

Option 1: Release the preceding note D only after I have changed the pedal. This is to ensure that there is a legato between D and the next note E in the melody. The problem with doing this is that the dissonance between these two notes will be too great (at least in my opinion). D does not belong in the A Minor 7th chord.

Option 2: The solution to eliminating that dissonance would be to simply release the preceding note before changing the pedal. Except that now I will lose the legato…

I think the bass note is very important. I think the legato is important as well. I also dislike the dissonance between the adjacent notes D and E. And I’d be lying to you if I said that the top C is a useless note. I wish I could have added it in, because it actually adds a lot more colour to the chord. But in the end, I’ve deemed it to be the least important.

Here’s the same image again:

Chords 2 & 3: I’ve chosen to play the top notes (F and G) just a quaver note later.

I didn’t do this with chord 1 because I didn’t want to disrupt the serenity of the space at the end of that phrase.

Now that I’ve got that out of the way, let’s look at the next 2 chords.

Here’s that same question again.

If I try to play the full chords by rolling them instead, while also keeping the top notes F and G aligned with the RH, where should I change the pedal? 

This time it is actually quite possible to change the pedal when the LH thumb arrives at the top note while still retaining the bass note. But you must pedal fast. This is because the bass notes are now in a register where the piano strings are thicker.

Thicker strings means that the dampers need to work harder to mute them. They need to rest on them slightly longer than on treble strings.

But guess what…

I like to have my bass notes ringing strong, not just audibleAnd that is why I’ve chosen instead to play chords 2 and 3 just like I did with chord 1. Except that this time I felt like I could also afford to add the top notes a little later.

Before I move on to the next chord, I’d like to point out two more things.

Thing #1: Using option 2 with chord 2 is actually quite a good idea as well. The reason I can afford to lose the legato with a tiny gap in between is because I’m at the end of a melodic phrase.

Thing #2: Using option 1 could work with chord 3 because there is no dissonance this time. The preceding note to chord 3 is a G, which belongs to the E Minor 7th chord.

I decided not to do any of this because…

You could say I’m lazy. But I would say that more often than not, I like to choose the option that gives me the greatest effect for music with the least effort and risk.

I like to play music as stress-free as possible.

Do thing #1 and thing #2 yourself and then compare your efforts with what I did in my video. You’ll understand what I mean.

Oh, and remember that you’re not supposed to be here if you have hands bigger than Rachmaninov’s.

– From 3:07 to 3:10 –

Chord 4: I’ve chosen to omit the bottom F.

At the tempo this passage is at, it is very risky for me to play this chord in full. There’s a good chance I’ll hit the adjacent note G above as well.

In my opinion, this extra 7th colour to the chord is not worth the effort/risk. The 7th note comes just a quaver later in the LH anyway.

– From 4:17 to 4:32 –

Let’s first look at chords 5 and 7.

It should be obvious by now that changing the pedal at the RH top note will result in a bass note that’s either lost entirely, or not ringing in its full sonority. So I will change the pedal at the bass note.

Notice how I roll the chord:

  1. I prolong the bass note for quite some time before rolling.
  2. The roll is accelerated (slower at the bottom of the chord, faster at the top).

The reason why I chose to play these 2 chords in such a manner is for dramatic effect. It would not make musical sense to do this with chords 1-3. It is also worth noting that by rolling the chords this way, I don’t have to stress over not “catching” the bass note in its full sonority with the pedal, because my pinky is going to be on that key for quite some time.

And so, it is great that my chosen interpretation happens to also be of low risk/effort!

Compare that with what most people would do. They roll the chords fast right from the bottom. By rolling them fast, you risk losing the bass note. You also risk missing some of the black keys in chord 5.

Now for the legato…

As you can see, my RH is only lifted when I’ve changed the pedal at the bass note of chord 7. The legato in the melody is important. Yes, technically this will result in some dissonance. But my ears tell me it is negligible. I think it’s a good compromise.

I did the same thing with chord 5, but this time it isn’t for the legato. As mentioned previously, I can afford to have a tiny gap because I’m at the end of a phrase. The actual reason is simply to retain some sonority. Again, the dissonance here is negligible.

Here’s the same image again:

Chord 6: I have chosen to play the top note Ab just a quaver note later.

I cannot roll this chord in full like how I did with chords 5 and 7 because that would just be overkill. Rolling it that way too many times would ruin the final dramatic moment at chord 7 because of a lack of contrast.

I guess I could play that chord differently by rolling it fast instead. But if you’ve been reading this article closely, I don’t think I need to explain any further why I’ve chosen not to do that.

As for playing the top note Ab a quaver note later as opposed to omitting it entirely…

The idea was to keep the music flowing in quavers all the way till the very last beat (beat 4), just before the final dramatic chord. By having just one quaver “silence” in the bar, and just before chord 7, a good contrast is created. I felt so good about this interpretation that even if I had hands big enough to play chord 6 in full as written, I might still do the same thing.

Of course, it is also good in itself that I can afford to add in that extra 3rd (Ab) colour, as opposed to not being able to with chord 1.

Alright, that’s another long article. If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments section below and I’ll do my best to answer them. You can also share with me how you’ve leveled up! :)

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