THE BENEFIT OF PLAYING PIANO DUETS AND DUOS
When I was a music student in college, I remember sitting at the piano in a tiny practice room with my fellow pianist and good friend, Gavina. We were playing a piano duet transcription of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony. When we reached the last movement with the glorious chromatic chord progression followed by the fugue, we both shrieked in delight at the rapturous, full sound we had created at our little piano. There was nothing like this sensation when either of us played alone.
The joys and benefits of playing ensemble piano are numerous. Beyond the great sound textures that two pianists can achieve and the sheer fun of playing together, many levels of learning are also addressed.
BEGINNING STUDENT and TEACHER
Even a very beginning student can enjoy ensemble piano. The first experience occurs when the teacher plays an accompaniment to the student’s melody. This can take place at the same piano or another piano if two are available. I always wait until the student has fully learned the piece and can count out loud while playing. Initially, I choose an accompaniment with exactly the same rhythm as the melody of the song so the student is not easily thrown off. Later on, I will play an accompaniment with a different rhythm (perhaps eight notes against the quarter notes the student is playing) to see if he/she can maintain the proper counting of the song even with this slight distraction. Many times, I ask the student to play the melody of the piece one octave higher so that the accompaniment doesn’t sound too “growly.” Some method books include accompaniments, but if they don’t, the teacher can provide chords or counter melodies.
My students truly enjoy playing duets with each other, even relative beginners. There are many of these available, even some trios (three kids at the piano!)
Continuity of counting and keeping an even beat without hesitation are two of the necessary skills in this process. Duet players should also be aware of balance and phrasing. Who needs to bring out the melody? Who needs to play more quietly? Listening to each other heightens musical skills. This is a similar to playing with other instruments in an orchestra or band.
Considering that piano playing is largely a solitary endeavor, the social experience of playing duets is immensely rewarding. At my studio recitals, I encourage students of similar levels and ages to play duets. This results in fun play date rehearsals at each other’s houses. As we get closer to the event, I have one student attend the other’s lesson and visa versa so that I can help with the mastery of the duet.
If a parent or sibling plays piano, this can lead to a rewarding family duet experience. In one recital, I had three eight-year old students each play a duet with a parent.
PIANO CLASSES AT COLLEGES
Having taught for decades at Diablo Valley College, I am ever aware of the learning opportunities for students playing piano duos (two students at two pianos). I even arranged a book of folk song duos for class piano. This book includes multi-cultural duos in 13 different major keys (yes, both F# and Gb!) and 9 minor keys. I have observed the growth of my students from playing these duos. If they have rhythmic insecurities, these disappear when one student counts out loud while playing with another student. Their musicianship also skyrocketed with the performance of these and other duos and duets.
INTERMEDIATE and ADVANCED STUDENTS
Fortunately, the repertoire of piano duets and duos is vast, from Moszkowski’s Spanish Dances to Scaramouche by Milhaud and the magnificent Schubert Fantasie in F Minor. Some of these are original compositions, e.g. Mozart Piano Duets, and some are transcriptions of orchestral works. Weekley and Arganbright have arranged and published through Kjos a wonderful progressive series of pieces for one piano, four hands.
As the music becomes more advanced, so is the need to create a piano “orchestra” with shifting lines, voices and textures between the two players. Listening intently is ever important. One must be aware of the give and take in phrasing and rubato to create a world of cohesive and expressive playing.
THE LONG TERM CONNECTIONS
It is exciting to see some of my studio duet partners emerge at age seven and continue on through high school and beyond! Some of my happiest moments involve playing duets or duos with fellow pianists. My mother at age 60+ had monthly piano duet get togethers with her pianist friend as well. Playing piano ensembles broadens one’s musical experiences by leaps and bounds. I urge all piano teachers and pianists alike to include this facet in their teaching and playing.