Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Importance of Duets

Last week I joined a dear friend and colleague, Ellen Patrick, to perform at the annual Christmas concert presented by her church. The event was a lot of fun and very relaxed. Ellen and I played Sleigh Ride Duet Fantasy arranged by Zach Heyde and Frank Tedesco. The arrangement was quite nice and rewarding to performers and audience alike. After playing, I began to think back on the role that duets have played in my own life and why I think they are so important.

From the very beginning, my teachers have always had me playing works for piano four-hands as well as works for two pianos. My first public performance was a two piano work -- a concerto that I played on the public school's Christmas recital in 1978. The situation was less than desirable, but the love of playing in ensemble was developed early on and has shaped me ever since.

Why are duets so important?  Here are just a few reasons that I have come up with this week.

  • Duets serve as an introduction to other forms of collaboration. Duets present challenges of ensemble that are unique to themselves while also introducing students to universal issues of balance, communication, and blend. Playing with another piano student is not so intimidating since we are all familiar with the instrument's challenges. As pianists become confident in playing in piano ensembles, they are much more willing to venture into chamber ensembles with other instruments.
  • Duets are a great way to introduce students to the style and literature of unfamiliar composers. My personal introduction to the works of Rachmaninoff, Poulenc, and Schubert began with the study of their works for four-hands. When I fell in love with Poulenc's music, it wasn't a stretch to look to the four-hand works of Milhaud and Tailleferre. Mozart's duet sonatas were an excellent way to learn about the necessary attention to phrase markings.
  • Playing with friends is fun! As a teen, I found myself at a crucial point in my development. I was struggling with some technical issues and my frustration level with the instrument was on the rise. I was ready to walk away from private study for good. Wisely, my teacher recognized my frustration and added duets to my repertoire. Duets traded the grueling work of solitary practice for a social experience. I enjoyed getting to spend time at the piano with a friend while still growing as a musician. Quite simply, I learned to have fun with my instrument again! This fact is still true for me. When I find myself getting tired of working alone in a practice room, I begin to seek chamber opportunities. Sometimes there is nothing better than sight-reading some Schubert duets to fill your soul with laughter and great music!
  • Duets expose strengths and weaknesses. While playing with a colleague, I immediately hear things from my partner's playing that I want to improve in my own. Can I play that phrase as lyrically as he does? What do I need to do physically to match the warmth of her tone? I really have to work on those scale passages to match the crispness of his sound! Because my playing will be directly compared to that of my duet partner, many students find themselves practicing more to make sure they are not seen as the weak player in the ensemble.
I love chamber work and have made a career out of it. Even though I love working with singers and instrumentalists, I still find myself longing for a regular diet of piano duets. I miss the joy of making wonderful sounds with a partner at a single piano.