Duets: Eight Practical Tips

She played most often from a garishly wonderful book called Songs of the Gilded Age. It included classics like, "Where Did You Get That Hat?" and "She's Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage." 

My tiny toddler feet dangled as I sat on the needlepoint-covered piano bench next to my mother. It was my first "Collaborative Arts" experience though I doubt my mother heard much artistry coming from my end. I banged gleefully on haphazard high notes while she actually played music

We graduated to a book of sixteen-measure duets. I learned them by ear, having heard my big sister play them with my mother. It felt like magic. I was playing nearly nothing and still it sounded like a symphony. I couldn't get enough of it. I didn't care that the pieces were dull or were all in C Major. I just loved playing the piano with my mother. 

A few weeks ago I taught a duet for the first time to Iliana and Sabine, two young sisters in my studio. I put the older sister, Iliana, on the bottom part explaining that the stronger, more mature player sounds best on the bottom. The most important part of four-hand playing is the foundation. Always put the better player on the (Secondo) bottom part. The Secondo player is also responsible for pedaling - another reason to put the stronger player there.

I gave them each their duet parts near the end of their lessons. I'd expected them to be happy about playing together, but their degree of enthusiasm surprised me.

Two days later I got a message with this video:

Duet playing turns piano playing into a team sport. People need and want these social, collaborative experiences. Going out of your way to provide them is something extra you can do to improve the success of your business.

It's not that this is a highly nuanced performance. It's that this was an experience of unsullied joy between two sisters. Think of the things that kids have to fight about. Then imagine the cooperation and drive that produced this short burst of music in only two days. That's motivation.

There aren't always siblings in a family to easily assign both parts of a duet. If you give it some thought, most students in your studio have someone with whom they could be matched to play duets. You just have to put a little work into it. If you don't have a good match within your studio, it's a great excuse to reach out to a colleague and collaborate between studios. Really. It's good for business and it's good for your own teaching. I've had many students from other studios appear as "guests" at my studio classes. 

Tips for successful duet teaching:

1. Choose music that is substantially easier than the less skilled person could play on their own.

It's surprisingly challenging for a pianist to play with another person, especially for the first time. I play duets constantly with my students, but one student playing with another student is another matter entirely. Err on the side of simpler music. You can always be impressed if they learn it easily, as Sabine and Iliana did. After an initial success or two you can assign something more challenging.

2. Put it together a bit at a time.

Use this opportunity for teaching students how to pull apart a piece to practice it.

Some examples:

  • Secondo (bottom) plays only her left hand. Both partners listen.
  • Add just the melody (usually in the right hand of the Primo part.)
  • Continue this process trying out all the different combinations.
  • Play only the notes which line up. Perhaps this is only the downbeats?
  • One person plays all of their part and the other plays only the harmony in theirs.

Use four-hand playing to encourage the students to learn to listen as they play. This is a sophisticated and worthwhile task. Don't overwhelm them by trying to do everything at once. This is another chance to teach good practice methods with the added pizazz of a duet partner. Post-it Note Practice works well for duets.

3. Parents may question the simplicity of the duets you assign. Ignore them.

If they are over-involved, they may even say something like, "Don't you think that Suzy could play a MUCH more difficult piece?" To which you simply respond, "No." It's easy to increase the difficulty, but if a child's first four-hand experience is a bad one it's hard to rewind and amend it. Follow your instincts and aim lower rather than higher. 

4. Start with short pieces.

The duet Iliana and Sabine are playing in the video is only 20 measures long. It's called Song and it's in the Jon George book Kaleidoscope Duets Book Two. I love all the Jon George Kaleidoscope Books including the Solo Books. The duets are the most unique. It's difficult to find truly high quality duets where the parts are evenly written, tuneful and sound great. Jon George did it well.

5. Play completely through both parts of any duet you plan to assign to make sure they are well-crafted.

It's bad enough to start teaching a piece and suddenly realize it's not going to work. It's double the trouble when you've involved two separate students in the fiasco.

It is difficult to write a great-sounding duet. It's even harder to write a great-feeling duet. Look for pieces where each part makes sense on its own. Since the players will be practicing their part separately it's important that it sounds good that way. 

Check and double-check before you assign.

6. Prepare for rhythmic challenges - and opportunities.

Get ready for some crazy stuff to happen when the two partners put their piece together for the first time. Let them make some mistakes and see if they can solve them on their own. They may surprise you with their tenacity and creativity. 

Duet playing presents fantastic opportunities for developing rhythm, but the process can be bumpy. You can approach this one of two ways.

  • You can count and count and count and count.
  • You can teach your students to listen to each other and themselves.

Perhaps you can tell my bias?

7. Duet playing brings the concept of "balance" to life.

Even the least sophisticated player doesn't want their melody drowned out by their partner. Concepts like "Hearing the melody" and "Keeping the accompaniment quiet" become vividly real in the context of duet playing. When someone ELSE is drowning you out, you're more likely to find it worth mentioning and fixing.

Just like life, duet playing involves lots of bargaining and taking turns. 

My adult students, Bob and Shanti, playing a four-hand piece that involved crossing hands. Look carefully a the sleeve color and you'll be able to see it.

 8. Remember the adults.

Adults love to play duets.

If you have an adult beginner, assign the easiest thing they'd be willing to play. It is even harder for an adult to play with another beginning adult, so keep the challenge quite simple. I have used the Kaleidoscope Books with adults and they are successful with them as well. There's no art, so the books can be used with all ages.

I have found that adults have far more glitches in their ability to adjust to another player so be patient and understanding. It's hard for them! 

I was so inspired by Iliana and Sabine's reaction to duet playing that I wrote a new duet especially for them. Take a listen while you finish reading.

There's also a behind-the-scenes story here. The older of the two girls had a serious medical crisis this year that involved long hours of treatment at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford University. Her mother told me that each time her daughter got home from a round of chemo she would head straight to the piano. It calmed her, it soothed her and it took her mind away from her troubles. Even though these girls missed at least a third of their lessons due to medical appointments and recovery, they made amazing progress this year. Iliana used her music to reflect, release and bless

I'm hopeful that playing Wishing Well will help to wish her well. I also wrote the piece in honor of Iliana's 10th birthday and her surgery to remove her port. It's rare to see such poise and maturity in someone so young. I like to think that music has played a meaningful role in this beautiful young family.

Finally, here are just a few of my favorite duets to teach:

Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, an intermediate duet by Jason Sifford, is so much fun to play that I even played it with my colleague on HER recital last spring!

Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, an intermediate duet by Jason Sifford, is so much fun to play that I even played it with my colleague on HER recital last spring!

Late Elementary Duet Wishing Well is in Attention Grabbers Book Three.

Late Elementary Duet Wishing Well is in Attention Grabbers Book Three.

Elissa Milne's Pepperbox Jazz Book One contains two of my favorite duets of all time: Mulga Bill and Book 'Em.

Elissa Milne's Pepperbox Jazz Book One contains two of my favorite duets of all time: Mulga Bill and Book 'Em.

Dragon-Fire Fantasy by Carol Matz has fired up my young students. It sounds much harder than it is and though it's not printed this way, it's actually a mixed-meter piece. (I've been known to use white-out and change the time signatures.) Either way, it's always a hit.

Dragon-Fire Fantasy by Carol Matz has fired up my young students. It sounds much harder than it is and though it's not printed this way, it's actually a mixed-meter piece. (I've been known to use white-out and change the time signatures.) Either way, it's always a hit.