Duets: Are We Missing the Point?

I don’t know about other teachers, but I try to make use of duets in my teaching at all levels. Indeed, I’ve written an article previously about the ‘joy of duets’. In terms of their use in lessons, it’s generally two-fold: they’re ‘fun’, and they’re great for sight-reading. I’ll frequently choose a duet where one part is sight-readable by the pupil, and we’ll have a go. There are lots of benefits to this, and it can be a great way to get pupils reading music at sight, without labelling it as ‘sight-reading’.

It occurred to me recently, that in some ways, we’re missing the point when it comes to duets. Yes, they’re fun and they’re good for sight-reading, but that’s not generally why they were written. They were written so that players could play together, and perhaps for pianists this is especially important.

Playing duets is essentially about playing as part of an ensemble. It’s not always the case, but in the main, I’d say the majority of duets published outside of what we might term to be the ‘educational market’ are written with parts of equal level. That means there’s a huge repertoire out there (and I’d be the first to admit it) that’s ignored in lessons.

So, here’s my question…how can we encourage pupils to learn and play duets? I don’t mean in terms of sight-reading them for fun at the end of a lesson, but using them in the way they were intended, as ensemble pieces.

It seems to me the biggest shift would need to be in mindset. Pupils clearly learn and work at solo repertoire pieces, and this is the bulk of what, as teachers, we’re focussed on. Would a pupil be equally willing to learn one part of a duet, in the same way they might approach the learning of a solo piece? I guess that unlike solo repertoire, the satisfaction of learning a duet is found in the putting together of the ensemble rather than in the solo playing. Would pupils be willing to wait to experience that? Maybe.

If this was the case, then it opens up a huge range of learning opportunities which are often sidelined in terms of instrumental lessons. It would certainly take a shift in mindset, away from the idea of learning pieces for solo playing. But, it would open up a huge repertoire which is, in the main, left completely untapped.

Next term, I’m going to try this out. I’m going to try giving pupils duet parts to learn, and approach them in the same way we’d approach learning solo repertoire pieces. Indeed, some pupils have already expressed an interest in learning duets. But I don’t mean duet parts which are necessarily easily sight-readable, but duet parts which are of a similar level to the solo pieces they’re learning. Initially, they can learn them to play with me, but in the future, this could open up opportunities for collaborating with other pupils. I have always believed that music is something to be shared, and this could be a great way of doing that.

So, let’s celebrate the hugely diverse and untapped duet repertoire out there. Yes, let’s keep throwing duets at our pupils for sight-reading, but let’s expose them to the excitement, the challenge and the satisfaction of ensemble playing.