Publication: The American Music Teacher
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 27331
ISSN: 00030112
Journal code: IAMT

Piano duets have a long and rich history, dating as far back as 1765 when Mozart began composing and performing duets with his sister, Nannerl. Moreover, in 1 777, Mozart wrote to his father that he was including piano duets in his teaching.1 By teaching the piano duet, teachers can pique students' interest and provide opportunities for them to experience and develop countless facets of musicianship and ensemble skills.

Penef its Of Puet Playing

The benefits of playing duets are numerous. Each participant cultivates skills that yield valuable returns in all areas of motivation, commitment, musicianship and success. There is sheer joy involved in making music with another individual. Great satisfaction results from being able to put the two parts together successfully. The social aspect of music making is highlighted as a result.

The enjoyment provided by playing duets increases a students motivation. A positive learning environment is established and the student develops an increased interest in continuing to play music. The presence of another individual motivates students to play their very best, and they begin to feel good about what they are doing. In addition, the performers are able to explore a greater range of the keyboard with 10 additional fingers. They gain pleasure from the full sounds they are creating and feel an incentive to persevere and achieve their goal.

Sight-reading skills are reinforced as students are encouraged to continue playing in spite of any mistakes that occur. They are resolved to continue without stopping to fix problematic areas. Also, since students are often called upon to read in either two treble or two bass clefs, depending on whether they are playing primo or secondo, weaker clef combinations are strengthened for each student. Such strengthening will undoubtedly assist them when they return to playing their solo music utilizing both clefs. Similarly, score reading is reinforced as well, especially when the two parts of the duet are printed in score form (both parts on the same page).

Duet playing also develops musicianship skills. Students are forced to listen to their partners and make decisions about their own playing as a result of what they are hearing. They are listening for rhythm, tempo, dynamics, style and the interaction between the two parts. They are also listening carefully in an attempt to match their partner's ritardando or accelerando. In addition, students need to analyze the music to determine exactly where the melody occurs, versus the accompaniment, since the balance is now distributed among four hands rather than two hands. They must decide what musical element is driving a phrase or section and establish who will bring out that part from the score.

Playing duets provides a great opportunity to teach students the elements of ensemble music. Ensemble music requires the ability to both lead and follow within the score, to balance the sound as the musical line dictates and to structure or shape phrases that are musically and rhythmically viable. Teachers can highlight and emphasize all of these features by teaching piano duets.

Teachers must consider several important aspects when preparing to teach duets. They must consider how to: pair students, choose repertoire that will benefit each student, impart creative practice techniques that will ensure a successful ensemble and facilitate or ease the performance of a duet.

Pairing Students

Before arranging or assigning students as duet partners, teachers must think through how the students will function as one entity. Students' personal qualities often dictate how well they will work with a partner and with whom they can best learn. Therefore, teachers must assess the personality and practice habits of each student. They must also bear in mind that many duet partners are approximately the same age and at the same level of study - though this is not necessary. Often, students with similar traits and habits work well together, yet students with varying personalities, work habits and ages complement each other as well.

Teachers have several options when pairing students. The first option is to allow siblings to play together. It is easy for brothers and sisters to practice together and parents often enjoy hearing their practice at home. Siblings can easily perform together at church, in recitals or at family gatherings. However, some dissention may be perceived between the siblings especially if one learns faster than the other, if one is getting more practice time than the other or if one sibling is perceived as the person in charge. The teacher will be able to gauge if siblings are capable of working well together.

The second option is to couple close friends. Friends enjoy being together, and their camaraderie can facilitate their practice time together. If the two students spend a great amount of time together in each other's homes, at school or in church, impromptu practice sessions will complement their scheduled practice time. Additionally, friends often accompany one another to their individual piano lessons even though it may be against the teacher's policy. Teachers can take full advantage of this by allowing a spontaneous joint lesson rather than having one student simply sitting in the waiting area.

The third option for pairing students is to blend time with students who have back-to-back lessons. Undoubtedly, students who attend regular group lessons have an advantage when scheduling joint practice time. However, students who take one-on-one lessons can benefit from unique time arrangements as well. Two students can share entire lessons, or they can easily overlap a portion of their lesson times for duet practice. For example, one student could complete his half hour lesson and then stay in the studio for the first part of the next student's lesson. Or, the second student could arrive a few minutes early to share time with the previous student. By simply coming a few minutes early or staying a few minutes late, the students and teacher can optimize their time together.

Choosing Repertoire

Choosing repertoire is another important aspect duet partners must consider. A wealth of duet repertoire is available ranging from teacher accompaniments in method books to pieces written specifically as duets from the standard teaching and advanced piano repertoire. Obviously, the repertoire must be at the technical level of the less experienced student but, most importantly, it must be musically pleasing for both students. Perhaps the piece can be more challenging musically rather than technically. For example, in Diabelli's Jugendfreuden (Pleasures of Youth), Op. 163, the primo part is written in pentascales and the hands often double or echo at the octave. However, while the composer uses a conservative amount of pitch material in the primo part, the pieces in this set are not necessarily for beginning students. Both parts employ intricate rhythmic patterns and require precise dexterity between the hands. The secondo part features extensive accompaniments utilizing octaves, full chords and a wide range of the keyboard. The pieces are quite mature stylistically and musically.

If friends or siblings who are not the same age or at the same level of study perform together, teachers may choose to assign pieces with accompaniments from a standard method series or from the collections of educational composers. The older or more experienced student easily accompanies the younger or less experienced student. In this case, teachers can help the "accompanists" observe and convey how harmonic structures support the melody. It also builds confidence in the less experienced student and both students learn to be considerate of others' abilities and learning styles.

Creative Practice Techniques

After pairing students and choosing the appropriate repertoire, teachers must use creative practice techniques to ensure a positive ensemble experience. From a logistical point of view, certain considerations need to be planned from the beginning. First, each individual should sit in the proper location at the piano, either to the left or the right of the center of the instrument. Sitting slightly off-center from the beginning of practice allows students to be comfortable when they come together with their partner. Second, each partner needs to be aware of any places in the score where he or she may need to release certain keys early for the other to play those same keys. Similarly, each partner should be of specific locations within the score where the secondo player's right and the primo player's left arms cross or where there may be awkwardness due to the arms simply being too close together. Third, from the outset, both performers should practice from the same editions. This will alleviate problems with varying articulation markings, page layouts, font sizes and page turns.

Each student must also have ample time to prepare. The teacher can determine how much time is suitable for each student and remain attentive if a group is not ready to practice the ensemble together. Practicing the ensemble together before both parties are ready could result in frustration. For example, if one student perceives her partner as being more fully prepared, she may be anxious and lack confidence in her ability to execute her part musically. Additionally, the full sounds produced by the nature of the duet can be overwhelming or distracting to less prepared students. Nevertheless, even when students have had sufficient time to practice, it always seems as though one student is more prepared than the other. Inevitably, just as the teacher adjusts her schedule to arrange time for everyone to work together, one student comes to the rehearsal unprepared. Frequently, the teacher's only option is to continue with the rehearsal as planned. Therefore, she must have a few tricks in her bag.

During practice, the teacher can direct each student's focus to various practice techniques that are beneficial to each student's needs and, ultimately, beneficial for the ensemble. For example, if one student needs to play his part under tempo, the more prepared student can take advantage of the slow tempo to play his part in block chords so as not to create overwhelming or distracting sounds for the other partner. Conversely, the more prepared student might improvise an alternate accompaniment or embellish the melody of the piece. Furthermore, while the teacher is helping one student with notes or rhythms, the more prepared student might play one hand of that student's part. This allows the less-prepared student to hear how her part sounds in full, hands together, while focusing on playing one hand at a time. This often means the more-prepared student eventually learns both the secondo and primo parts of a duet - that is a great teaching tool itself!

Following this further, teachers can encourage well-prepared students to complete several other activities. For example, a well-prepared student can outline the form of the piece in depth or complete a harmonic analysis of the work or a specific section of the piece. He could research the composer's biography or compositional style. And, most assuredly, he will enjoy preparing a solo piece by the same composer as the duet piece. Moreover, both students will enjoy using technology while preparing a duet. For example, students can help each other by making a digital recording or laying a track of their individual parts with software such as GarageBand or Cakewalk or with basic cell phone and MP3 player capabilities. They can then burn a CD or transfer MP3 files to share their parts with one another. The teacher can gauge how many supplemental activities a student needs and organize creative projects that will occupy and satisfy the students time, energy and desires. These kinds of activities will benefit the ensemble as a whole and propel both students' drive and success.

Ease Of Performance

The final step for teachers to take in the preparation of a duet is to facilitate or ease the performance so it proceeds as smoothly as possible. Teachers can offer several suggestions to help duet performers feel comfortable. First, the performers must mark only one score of music. While each member of the duet practices from his own copy of music, the pair ultimately will use only one score during the performance. If the performers will be using the score that belongs to the primo player, for example, the secondo partner needs to take the time to write fingerings, counts and other markings into the otherwise clean score. This ensures both students will have all of the information they need to project their part with confidence.

Second, the performers must practice how to start the piece. A verbal count off is typical but the start of the piece can also be conveyed with a small gesture of the head, arm or simply with slightly audible breaths taken in the character of the piece. Also, to start the piece successfully, performers often need to subdivide at the eighthor the sixteenth -no te value. Physically voicing or signaling the subdivisions of the beat creates a fundamental security that is the foundation of a captivating performance. With the teacher's guidance, the performers can decide how best to start their piece and they, undoubtedly, will need to practice that process many times to be certain their communication is effective.

Third, performers must find ways to communicate during the performance. Duettists must constantly convey or exchange ideas or emotions to one another. As mentioned previously, this is most effectively done with audible breathing - almost as if one is singing under their breath. These breaths must be in congruence with the musical qualities of the piece. For example, musical nuances such as tempo changes, rubato, the push and pull of a phrase, or expressive traits or moods can all be expressed by short bursts or long pushes of air that only the performers can hear between themselves. This allows the performers to connect with one another without distracting the authence with verbal counting or lip movement.

Lastly, to ensure a successful performance, the students should share various duties that will make the performance flow. Students must decide who will start the piece or who will change the musical score if more than one piece is included in the program. Of course, they must share page turns and pedaling as warranted by the music. These factors must be determined in advance, and once the decisions have been made, these responsibilities should not vary between the pair from one performance to another. Paying attention to these kinds of details demonstrates professionalism and generates security, assurance and poise.


By including piano duets in their repertoire, teachers can captivate students' attention and allow them to experience and develop musicianship and ensemble skills. The benefits of playing duets can not be denied. Each participant cultivates skills that, in turn, create success. That success yields motivation for students to continue to further their abilities and proficiency. Additionally, the skills students develop while playing duets will most assuredly reinforce what they are practicing in their solo repertoire. Often, development of these skills or techniques is the result of solo effort. However, in a sort of synergy, collaboration allows students to develop their own technique with the added effort of a partner - perhaps with more benefits than when working on their own. Once learned, the students will have an arsenal of technique and expertise with which to execute their talents and abilities in solo and collaborative work.


1 . Dallas Weekley and Nancy Arganbright, "The Piano Duet: A Medium for Today," American Music Teacher 56, no. 5 (April/May 2007): 16, 20.

Author affiliation:

Danise Gallaway, Ph.D., is an active pianist and pedagogue, who mentors new piano teachers and whose students consistently earn top honors. She has won awards for her research and has had articles published in Keyboard Companion.

Joann Marie Kirchner, Ph.D., is coordinator of secondary piano at Temple University, where she teachers applied and group piano, as well as pedagogy. Kirchner has written articles for Medical Problems for the Performing Artists, Keyboard Companion and AMI.

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