Double your pleasure, double your fun

One of my extracurricular activities—when I’m not playing the piano for senior citizens—is playing piano duets with friends. Four hands on one piano can make a lot of music!

We play mostly serious classical pieces by A-list composers like Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Schumann. But we’ve also tackled more contemporary pieces, like Gershwin songs rewritten for four hands, and duet arrangements of selections from West Side Story.

Playing duets is obviously a cooperative effort. First, there’s the sheet music itself. Both players read from the same music, with the two parts either written out one above the other on the same page, or separated out onto facing pages.

The player sitting on the right side of the bench plays the part labeled “primo,” generally using the upper half of the keyboard. The player on the left gets the “secondo” part (sometimes a bit easier), and the lower half of the keyboard. But it’s not a simple 50/50 split, as in “You play the high notes and I’ll play the low notes.” The middle of the keyboard is used by both players. Successful duet partners must be amenable to that arrangement and learn to share nicely. Each must be gracious in moving off a key quickly if it’s needed by the other player. In other words, a duet player has to learn to blend with another pianist, while at the same time knowing how to keep out of her way. It’s an intricate affair.

Duet partners might even cross over each other’s hands to reach their notes. This is a holdover from the 1800s. Duets peaked in popularity during that century, in large part because sitting side-by-side at the piano gave young men and women a socially acceptable way to spend time in close company. Composers played cupid by calling for hand-crossing in some sections of the music they wrote.

Playing duets requires the ability to stick to agreed-upon tempos, as well as the flexibility to allow for variations in timing that are critical to expressive playing. And there are other matters to be worked out. Who pedals? (Usually the player on the left side of the bench.) Who turns the pages? (The player who can manage to have one hand free for a moment.)

So, a big shout out to my piano duet partners: Connie in Madison, my first keyboard collaborator, and my current East Lansing partners, Anne and Liz. I literally couldn’t do it without you!

I’ll let Chico and Harpo Marx show you just how fun playing piano duets can be. This three-minute film clip is guaranteed to make you smile.

Copyright © 2013 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.

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5 Responses to Double your pleasure, double your fun

  1. Barbara Sharkey Cunningham says:

    Very interesting. I would love to hear this.

  2. Sandy Shores says:

    Your blog this week brings back wonderful memories of a friend I used to duet with on piano. Our favorite piece was “Nola”….with me playing on the right and my partner playing the left. What fun! Sometimes we laughed more than we played! Great video too, Paulette. Thanks for sharing this.

  3. Anne Baillie says:

    I wish we could play like Chico and Harpo…well, some of it! I am so glad we met in that strings group and found we lived in the same neighborhood and discovered we liked playing piano duets. You’ve been very patient with my lack of technical skills. I was amused when I was at a performance of a daunting duet arrangement of Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’ a few years ago and one of the performers likened having your partner pedalling for you as a similar feeling to having your teeth cleaned by your husband! I often think of that when I’m the one with the responsibility. Thanks, Paulette, for many enjoyable hours – interspersed with frustration when I’m not quite up to it….I mean, on my part. Anne

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