When I first learned piano, I would have at least one recital a year. When I was just starting, my teacher would always play a duet with me as one of my recital pieces. Now that I teach, I understand why.
When you play simple songs on the piano, there is not a lot of depth to the sound. When the teacher adds a part -usually the lower bass part -the song begins to sing. At the same time, especially for the younger child, having the teacher nearby is very comforting. Playing duets requires different skills than playing solo. Here are some of them.
When you play by yourself, you may forget to hold a dotted half note for a full three beats or a whole note for a full four beats. Although you may be altering the sound of your piece when you do this, it will be much more tragic when you play a duet. You and your duet partner will end up in different measures! Therefore, you must practice any duet part with a metronome. You and your duet partner must decide on a speed (or more than one speed in the case of a Minuet or Sonata) and stay with that beat as best as you can. You also need to learn that if mistakes happen (and they always do), you can still resume playing when you find where your partner has whizzed to when forgetting this important rule.
If you are a showy player, you may have some difficulty with duets. Although it is acceptable to play your slower and faster parts when marked as such, it is not always a good idea to slow down or speed up as part of your own interpretation. Unless you and your partner have practiced together extensively, this will lead your duet partner to part ways!
When you play a duet, you must be doubly careful to observe your dynamic markings. Your part will be marked “p” for a reason; the reason may be that your duet partner’s music is marked “f.” If you play too loud, the melody will not be heard. If you play too softly when you are supposed to play loudly as you have a significant, victorious sounding section of the melody, no one may hear that melody line at all! It is even more important not to blast any chord accompaniment – especially if you have the bass part. If you pound on those chords, no one can hear the melody that is often in the treble clef.
Since most of us only have one piano in our homes, and if you go to a private teacher’s studio, there may only be one piano there, I am mainly focusing on duets where you are sharing a keyboard with your duet partner. The problem is that if you have a passage in the other person’s usual territory, your partner has to move their hands out of the way. If not, you will not be able to play those keys at all! You will also have times you are only one note apart. If your pinky is on the wrong key – just one note off – you will be in your partner’s way and potentially create a mini-disaster.
When playing with another instrument that doesn’t use treble and bass clefs, it is terrifying to get “lost.” I was playing a piano duet with a cellist who was trying out for a competition. Although I thought we should practice long hours (this is before the pandemic), his parents only committed to three practice sessions. On the day of the tryout, the cello player became very nervous and started going faster and faster in the middle of the piece. I couldn’t follow all of the cello notes, and I just had to stop playing. It was not my favorite day – nor his – even though he did miraculously make it through to the next round.
We may be relegated to playing duets via Zoom, Skype or Facetime, or other sites in these challenging times. Long-distance duets do not work well without very extensive equipment. The worst part is that there is a several-second lag time. This past week I took a course where I played four different pieces with an excellent cellist. When we practiced using Zoom, we were about 3 seconds apart each time. Three seconds, you say; what does that matter? It honestly sounded terrible, and I could never tell where I was supposed to be. Hopefully, as the world is returning to pre-pandemic times, we will be able to play duets with our friends and teachers once again!