Playing Duets With Your Students

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Having our students practice and then show us their solo work during a lesson is a great way to check on their progress, and has been a standard way of doing this for decades, even centuries. But as suggested by a previous blog, “Keeping the Interest ALIVE Part 2” by PLIYH teacher Amanda Munson, it is a worthwhile idea to engage in duet work with our students. This definitely shows that we are willing to put in the effort of performance preparation and gives students a sense of teamwork and unity. This togetherness might build up a student’s confidence, especially when playing in front of a live audience. It additionally adds a sense of excitement and variety, as it becomes a new way to experience the same piece. Adding a whole other part into the mix creates a noticeably more complex, bigger sound which students find fulfilling. Often, if a beginner-level student sees a new piece that has a teacher’s duet on the bottom portion of the page, they will be inquisitive about this strange, “difficult-looking” music. Once they find out about what it is, they will usually get excited and ask us to play with them!

Of course, the first step is to make sure they are ready to play on their own, that they are showing good technique and playing with all the details of dynamics, articulation and style as indicated in the music. It doesn’t make sense to start playing with them right out of the gates when they don’t have a clue how their own part should sound.

Now comes the HARD part: getting the student acclimated to playing with another person! Most of the time, beginners will find it distracting to perform with another part at the same time, and will lose coordination and sense of tempo/rhythm. This then puts pressure on us as teachers to keep a close eye on what they are doing, where they are in the music, and to even verbally direct them on what measure and beat we should be on, all the while keeping an eye on our own part! (This is the time when we grow a second head or another pair of eyes.) All joking aside, in order to get them used to this new situation, we should have them do a very familiar part of the piece, as small as two to four measures, at a very slow tempo, first by themselves, then add our part. Having a metronome ticking away will help tremendously to keep everything “glued together,” and at this time, they should already be comfortable practicing with a metronome. Another strategy that can help the student lock into a steady beat, is for them to count-off out loud. Remind them that it’s better to choose a slower, more comfortable pace.

The next step would be to make sure they understand that their primo part will most likely contain the melody (at least in beginning levels), and that this is the more important part which needs to be heard more clearly. Encourage students to play with firm fingertips and stronger dynamics if the music calls for it. This alone will help them realize the value of balance between parts which will aid in their own solo work.

And finally, here are some great sources and anthologies of piano duets: Easy Classical Piano Duets & Essential Keyboard Duets, Volumes 1-7, all selected and edited by Kowalchyk & Lancaster, Kaleidoscope Duets, Books 1-5, by Jon George, In Recital! Duets, Books 1-6, Edited by Helen Marlais, PreTime Piano Classics by Nancy Faber, Alfred’s Basic Adult Duet Book, Levels 1-3, by Dennis Alexander, Celebrated Piano Duets, Books 1-5, by Robert D. Vandall, and Great Symphonic Themes, arranged by Carol Klose.

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