It's Sunday night and I just came home after playing in a wonderful concert just outside of New York City, in Armonk, NY. I played a short solo piano set in which I performed my Pachelbel's Canon Rag (get your free download here) and improvised on the theme from Bach's Musical Offering.
But what struck me the most was how glad I was that I know all my chords. I was asked to play some contemporary classical music with a violinist and cellist. The music was fun, spirited, and very challenging. The left hand in particular jumped around a lot and when combined with constantly changing time signatures made the piece very difficult to play. Indeed, even after lots of practice there were a few moments when I simply had to make up my own left hand parts to keep up with the fast tempo.
What saved me? Chords!!! When you know your chords well, you can instantly identify what a piece's harmonic structure is and, if necessary, play something that sounds great but is just a little easier than what's written. Or play something that suits your personal style better.
Opera accompanists and other pianists who play orchestral reductions do this all the time. Broadway pianists too. I wouldn't recommend it for Beethoven, but it can really save you in a pinch, such as when you're sightreading or don't have enough practice time.
How well do you know your chords? Are they literally at your fingertips? If not, then make a practice plan to learn them better. Much better. You'll be glad you did!
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