Practising Duets: Part 1

This is the first of two posts addressing piano duet practice. Most students love to play duets, after all it’s one of the few times they get to work with a fellow pianist. It can be helpful for pupils to work in pairs for many aspects of piano playing – from practising scales and arpeggios, to testing each other on sight-reading, and for me, duets are an extension of this important work.

Playing with another pianist (i.e. four hands) can make the overall piano timbre feel much grander and fuller than when playing solo. And with this in mind, beginners and less experienced players can really benefit from playing four and six handed music (at one keyboard).

As a young pianist, I played a large array of duets (at every level), and had lessons as a teenager at music college in this discipline. In my twenties, I established a piano duo with a Russian friend and colleague; we played both two piano and duet repertoire; everything from Schubert’s glorious Fantasie in F minor (for duet) to Liszt’s dramatic Reminiscences de Don Juan (for two pianos). Particular repertoire favourites included Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos in E flat major and Poulenc’s superb Two Piano Concerto. We had great fun with these masterpieces. Working at two piano repertoire feels very different to playing with four hands at one piano, and it’s preferable to start with one keyboard; playing trios is becoming increasingly popular too, and is a great way to incorporate beginners into ensemble playing.

When young students (and older students!) play together for the first time, there will be a number of issues requiring careful work and preparation. From rhythm, sound and precise ensemble to pedalling (it feels so different from pedalling for one), balance and articulation. This post hopes to address a few of these concerns, arming potential duettists with various methods to practise different technical and musical elements.

Whether you’re a beginner, intermediate or advanced player, it can help to begin by warming up with a few exercises together, as a duo: these exercises can help with sound production, finger and wrist flexibility and mostly importantly, will foster precise ensemble playing. They will also attune listening skills; a facet which can take time to develop. Once each pianist has learnt their own part, the work starts – playing with another certainly adds a new musical dimension, especially for the less experienced player.

Here are a few exercises for the beginning of a practice session:

The first consists of slow semibreves; play very steadily, focusing on producing a warm, full sound, using the wrist in a very flexible, loose manner, whilst keeping arms and elbows relaxed:

duet-exercise-1The Secondo (bass) or second part is just as essential as the Primo (treble) or first part; both parts  must be considered equal. Starting pianissimo, experiment with plenty of different tonal colours (an enjoyable part of the process during this first exercise). It will help you to listen to the sound produced, and learn to place the notes together at the same moment (quite a challenge!). Aim  to observe each other’s hands at the vital moment just before playing each note, and learn to place trust in one another’s physical gestures too. If you can also keep to a strict pulse (break this down into small sub-divisions i.e. try counting aloud together in quavers, for example), this will instigate precision when placing each semibreve.

The second exercise (below) focuses on prompt placing of crotchets a third apart, which will again encourage listening skills whilst building on the first exercise. It’s in the five-finger position, so is convenient and easy for beginners, but could be used for up to and including intermediate to advanced players.

duet-exercise-2The final exercise is faster and needs firmer finger technique. However, finger technique will hopefully improve when practising this seemingly never-ending pattern. Be sure to use the suggested fingering, which follows the five-finger position, and remember to decide on a place to stop too! You could also play this exercise in reverse, coming down the keyboard following a similar pattern.

duet-exercise-3Play the exercise slowly to begin with then gradually build speed when secure. Clear articulation, and completely rhythmical quavers should ideally be the primary concern.

Once assimilated these exercises can be practised using various rhythms and touches (legato, non-legato, staccato, tenuto). I hope they help pupils of all levels to focus on ensemble skills, before negotiating their duet pieces.

Other useful exercises include the 28 Melodious Studies Op. 149 by Diabelli. They offer a wealth of study material for duettists, from around Grade 2 onwards.


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


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Guest Post: 11 ways to kick start your practice routine

Happy World Piano Day! Today’s guest writer is Evgenia Chudinovich (GéNIA). GéNIA (pictured below) has written for my blog before (you can read her very popular article here), and she is a highly experienced pianist, teacher, author, composer, and creator of Piano-Yoga®. Here, she offers some practice tips for those in need of some inspiration!


Have you ever had the familiar feeling that you really would like to do something but you just do not have the time for it? If only! In reality, very secretly, you know that you have the time, however you just cannot bring yourself into doing something.

I have news for you! For a start, thousands, it not millions of people, have had this feeling at least once in their life. It does not matter if it was about piano practice or learning a foreign language or simply starting a regular exercise regime. You know you want it, you even know need it, but still something is holding you back.

So what shall we do it about it? How do we start?

In this article I am going to concentrate on piano practice, however these tips can be applied to anything! Here are 11 ways to get back to your piano practice:

  1. Establish a routine. This is absolutely essential, as without a routine there will be no continuous progress. The routine can start from 10 minutes daily to an hour a day. All you need to do is to establish the constant time (or times if you have a patchy schedule) and stick to it. For example 10 minutes in the morning always at 8 am, or in the evening, or 3 days a week in the morning and 3 days a week in the evening according to your availability.
  2. Plan in advance. Try to think in weeks and months, rather than from day-to-day, unless it is absolutely impossible for you to know what your week looks like. Your body will get used to doing the same thing at the same time, and at some point, it will start ‘asking you for it’ rather than you making yourself do it.
  3. Use an alarm. This is a very simple trick but it works wonders. Put the stop time, and do not think about the time until the alarm sounds. You can start with short sessions rather than longer ones, so start with 10 – 15 minutes, and then slowly increase the time to 30 minutes or 45 if you like.
  4. Establish a specific goal. Why are you learning the piano? I understand that you want to learn to play, but you need to ask yourself why you want to learn to play: Is it because you want to impress others, or just play for yourself, or both? Then ask yourself what would symbolise the achievement of this goal? For example giving a private concert performance or sitting at the piano and playing ‘Clair de Lune” to yourself when you feel like it; it can be anything, however please be specific. Once you have a goal, it is much easier to start practicing!
  5. Start with small steps. Let’s say that you have established a goal and please be as ambitious as you like, as it is very important! However it is also important to be realistic by not putting yourself under too much pressure in attempting to achieve the goal, so you don’t feel inadequate and stressed. Therefore if your goal is too ambitious (like learning to play the original ‘Claire de Lune’ whilst you only know how to play piano with your right hand), establish gradual steps that would help you to achieve it. For example, with regard to ‘Clair de Lune’, it can be achieved by doing several graded exams before you tackle this piece, or you can choose a different way by learning how to play with the left hand first, then how to play pieces with lots of flats, proceed with learning how to play fast by concentrating on piano technique, and so on.
  6. If this is available to you, learn from a professional. In every area, whether this is music, languages, dance, or yoga, you can save yourself a lot of time, and achieve things quicker, by receiving guidance from a reputable professional. Ideally it is good to have regular contact with such a person, hence weekly lessons with the piano teacher is a norm, and most recommended. However not everyone can afford it. This is where many make a mistake, as they think there is no point in having lessons at all, if they cannot commit to weekly sessions. However, a professional can help you on many levels: from establishing your goals to highlighting your weaknesses and creating a programme that will help you to achieve your goal faster. Therefore even bi–weekly, monthly or occasional lessons will be always better that no lessons at all.  On this note I would like to caution my readers, as these days there is a lot of information available on the internet, and you need to make sure that you learn from someone who is qualified, rather than someone who speaks and looks nice, makes funny jokes and makes it look easy. Please do your research before you find the right teacher. You can also read my blog How to find the right teacher for you.
  7. Create ‘tests’. These are very important, as they will keep you focused. From time to time – for example every 4 weeks – create a test. It can be either doing a small recording and assessing it, or playing for a friend or even playing for a group of people or your teacher. By preparing every step you will be advancing and learning. Do not get discouraged if some ‘tests’ do not go the way you want them to, as we learn from our mistakes as much, if not more, then we learn from our achievements.
  8. Keep a diary of your practice routine. I always have a folder with notes on my piano. Write down a date, and jot down what you would like to do and achieve next in your playing, as, when you start your practice next day, it will be easier to pick up from where you left off.
  9. Be clever with the time management of your practice. Of course, if you are a beginner, and have only one piece of music to play, it is easier to concentrate during your practice. I personally encourage my students of any age and level to do piano exercises regularly. Franz Liszt spent many hours a day doing his. If it was good for Liszt then it is definitely good for everyone aspiring to play well. Therefore, make sure that you plan the time to do some scales and/or exercises, in addition to the pieces that you are working on. If you work on more than one piece and have more than 10 minutes to practice, then divide the time into sections, according to the pieces that you are playing plus exercises (if you decide to do them), and set the alarm for each section of your practice. When the alarm goes off, stop working on what you have been working on, and write down in your practice diary what is left to achieve, or what you would like to concentrate on next. Then move on to the next piece. If you prefer to concentrate on one piece per day, then make sure that you alternate the pieces together with the days.
  10. Always, always, always: try to imagine the end result of what you are trying to achieve. At the beginning of your practice, or after the exercises section, close your eyes and imagine how you would like to play a piece which you are working on. Let your senses guide you. If you want to imagine yourself playing at the Wigmore Hall or Carnegie Hall or in a really cool jazz club, or just in front of a group of friends at the dinner party, go for it! You can do it, and in reality you never know what can happen in life, so never say never. Be inspired by your own desire, as this would make your practice more genuine and sincere.
  11. Be consistent. You won’t always feel like practicing. On some you would feel like you really want to play and on others, it would be like ‘No Way’! In the latter case, gently acknowledge that today may not be the best of your days, but please do still try and play, even though you don’t feel like doing it. It will still pay off.

I hope that you enjoyed these tips! Let me know how you get on, either through my website www.piano-yoga.com or through my Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/pianoyogaeducation. And if you wonder if I ever have days when I do not feel like practice, the answer is ‘Yes, sure!’ What do I do? Go through the 11 tips listed above 🙂

GéNIA


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.