Together we can make such sweet music

Last week my piano duet partner and I started learning one of Antonin Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances. We played it through slowly a couple of times, well under the marked tempo. Tempo de lerno, as I think of it.

Then we looked at a few performances on YouTube, to get an idea of the speed we should aim for.

And we came across this:

To say that I was impressed by the musicianship of these two boys is an understatement. I was in awe of their talent and stage presence, especially the one closest to the camera. Look at his face. Such passion. Such focus. He’s 9 years old! Did you catch the way he rose up from the bench at minute 3:38? Did you notice his cute keyboard suspenders?

You often hear that young people aren’t interested in classical music anymore. It’s good to find exceptions like these two.

Here’s more about the fun and challenge of piano duets, from a post I wrote in 2013:

One of my extracurricular activities—when I’m not playing the piano for senior citizens—is playing piano duets. 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.)

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.

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

This entry was posted in Music and emotion, Piano performance and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Together we can make such sweet music

  1. Roger Wise says:

    I recalled that video of Chico and Harpo Marx as I wa reading your article. I ran across it some time ago and was both surprised and amazed at their talent. I was delighted to see that you had included it at the bottom of your post.

  2. Sharie Van Gilder says:

    Thanks again—-great shows !

  3. Aunt Evie says:

    I think chopsticks is about the limit of my duet experience. Hope to hear you and your duet partner play sometime. How about a clip of YOU in one of your blogs?

    • Hmmm, I’ll think about that… In the meantime, you’ve reminded me about “Chopsticks,” a piano piece with an interesting history. I might write a blog post about it in future 🙂

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