We’ve all likely experienced the benefits of duet and ensemble playing for ourselves over the years. Turning music into a social experience that encourages students to actually practice and count sounds like a win-win scenario, but duet playing can be stressful and have a negative impact if students aren’t well-prepared.
Throughout my career I have coached competitive choral ensembles, musical theater casts, accompanied all levels of solo vocalists, instrumentalists, and choirs, played in worship and jazz bands, and of course, taught duets to all my students. I’ve developed a few strategies over the years, and I’m excited to share what I’ve learned.
First, a few benefits of duet playing that you may not have considered:
1. Social Environment
Duets can provide a bonding experience for siblings, parents, and friends. Adding social bonding to musical performance will make your students love piano even more!
2. Skill Review
Early level duet music doesn’t necessarily sound easy, so duet study is the perfect opportunity to bring students back a few levels to review skills without making them feel like they are being held back.
3. Decreased Performance Anxiety
Duet playing helps students with performance anxiety feel more relaxed and confident in public performances.
4. Develops Accompanying Skills
Duet playing introduces skills needed for accompanying and ensemble playing--important and marketable skills for career pianists!
5. Pleasing Repertoire
Duets let students play more advanced sounding repertoire without working as hard.
Popular repertoire arranged for duets is more accessible because students don’t have to cover every part or deal with awkward solo arrangements.
7. Note Reading
Duet playing improves reading in general, but especially at the extreme high and low ends of the staff. I like to have students take turns playing primo and secondo so they get comfortable with both clefs.
How I Teach Duets: A Practical Lesson Plan
First, identify potential duet pairs. This is important, as you need both a commitment from each student and a regular practice time for the duets to have maximum impact.
My favorite duet groups are siblings because they usually have lessons back to back and can practice at home. I’ve turned some of my larger families into piano quartets!
Students who have back to back lessons or are willing to come to extra rehearsals will also work, but make sure the students and parents understand the commitment and are engaged in the process. To win parents over, I emphasize the list of musical and social benefits to duet playing.
Social students won’t need much encouragement, but shy or withdrawn students may be nervous about working with a partner. I find setting clear expectations and having structured rehearsals go a long way in alleviating anxiety.
I find that building teamwork between students is just as important to duet success as counting or practice. If your students trust each other and learn to listen and communicate in other activities, that bond will transfer to their music.
We usually spend 3-5 minutes of lesson time on building collaboration skills (time is split between each duet partner's private lesson if they are scheduled back to back). I like to start these activities a few months before introducing duet music. If you are on a tight schedule, a few weeks will do, but you may need to spend more time on the activities each week. Some of my favorite ways to build teamwork are:
1. Rhythm Games
Get students used to feeling a beat together, and duet playing will be monumentally easier! Try these activities:
Rhythm Cup Explorations by Wendy Stevens. These exercises will provide a fun way to explore rhythm sequences together using fun cup tapping techniques!
Backing tracks are available for purchase to use with Rhythm Explorations, but I prefer to let students choose their own favorite pop songs to tap along to. This works best with 4/4 time signatures, as pop songs in 3/4 are pretty rare!
Let each student choose a song. This is a great opportunity for you to facilitate a conversation about each student's favorite music. This is also a good way to help your duet partners get to know one another and develop a connection.
Compose a Rhythm: Pick a time signature and have each student write a four measure rhythm. This reinforces theory concepts and composition.
Then have them tap the rhythms together along with a metronome or drum track. When they have perfected that, have them trade papers and tap the other student’s rhythm.
This can take many forms depending on your students’ levels, but the goal is to get them sensing music together and having a musical conversation. Some good activities include:
-Black key improvisation:Play an accompaniment pattern (something as simple as a Gb major chord to a steady rhythm will do the trick) and have students take turns playing a melody on the black keys to create a musical conversation. This may take a lot of verbal cues at first, but eventually, their musical teamwork will develop. Improvise on a specific scale once they have mastered the black keys.
-Improvise with one student playing piano and the other providing rhythm.
-12-Bar Blues: Teach students to improvise with the standard blues progression.
-Experimenting with different sounds on a digital piano while improvising is a great way to get students listening to one another.
4. Joint theory or history lessons
This could tie into their repertoire or just be a fun way to supplement their regular lessons.
-Give them challenges to complete together, such as looking up a composer or analyzing a piece.
-Listen to a piece and discuss it together.
Once you’ve picked your team and taught them to work together, you’re ready to choose repertoire! This can make or break a duet pair, so here are some tips to help you out.
1. Start easy
I prefer to start students with very easy duets, especially if they don’t have a lot of ensemble experience.
Carol Matz's Famous and Fun Duets Book 1 is my favorite duet collection to start students with. In the Hall of the Mountain King is always a favorite!
Even for late intermediate or advanced students, I will have them play a few early elementary duets together and gradually introduce more difficult music. As I mentioned before, this is a great opportunity to review concepts that give students trouble in their more advanced solo repertoire.
Look for arrangements of popular repertoire or other pieces that students want to play that aren’t well suited to solo piano arrangements. Duets are also a great way to perform contrapuntal music, which is much easier with four hands!
Do watch out for syncopation as students may have trouble staying together.
Your ensemble will be most successful if both students like the music and are at least excited about the piece even if they aren’t necessarily excited to play together.
Offer several options and let the students choose it together and decide who will play which part. This gives students ownership in the music. And, working through conflict in making these decisions helps them further build teamwork and their dynamic.
I usually have students switch between playing primo and secondo for each piece. If the students can’t agree on a piece, have them each choose one and do both!
Once the music is chosen, I have students practice exclusively on their own. I may have them continue the team building exercises, or I may devote that lesson time to individual coaching while they learn their parts.
I do not allow the students to collaborate on their duet music until they have perfected their music. Here is the process I follow:
Students learn their part on their own. Once they are able to play the notes, I play their part along with them to help them locate mistakes and polish their rhythm. If they have trouble, we write in counts, listen to recordings, or go through any of the steps we might for solo repertoire.
Once students master this step, I start playing the other part with them. They learn to listen for cues and follow along in the score. I will count for them and adjust my tempo as needed and gradually decrease support as they gain skill. When they can play it with me with a steady rhythm, they are ready to play together.
I supervise the first joint practices very carefully. If possible, I have duet practice after each student has had their private lesson. I go over the duet with them individually and have them play with me again just to make sure it is fresh in their minds.
I count and tap rhythms and point along in the score if anyone gets lost. I keep the first few rehearsals very short so that students don’t get frustrated.
If things go badly, students are often quick to blame their partner. I don’t allow this. Instead, we focus on teamwork. I am the only one allowed to correct mistakes, but students are encouraged to offer each other constructive feedback.
New duet partnerships are delicate, and it is important to keep things fun and positive. If things go badly, I end the rehearsal and say we will practice it again next week.
I do not assign blame, but if one student is clearly less prepared than the other, I may emphasize that they need to practice and be better prepared. I do my best to state this as fact rather than blame. I will then address the weaknesses in private lessons until students are able to overcome them.
Students then may practice the duet together at home.
Only when the students can play together in lessons with accurate rhythms and minimal personal conflict do I clear them to practice together at home. (This matters most for sibling pairs. Others may not have the opportunity to practice together outside of lessons) This is a major milestone for them, and I make a point to emphasize that they have earned this.
I make sure students are very comfortable with the music and working well as a team before letting them perform. Again, this is something they earn through good attitudes and practice.
Teaching duets may take some extra planning, but the many benefits make it worth it. I rarely spend more than 5 minutes of lessons in duet rehearsal, and that time spread over a few months is enough to get students playing together and build the foundations of teamwork. Most pairs enjoy the partnership, and they definitely gain some important skills.
Do you teach duets in your studio? What are your strategies? I would love to hear them!