Tips for Duet Playing

Duet-playing is one of the most gratifying rewards of playing the piano. There's one piano/four hands (two players on one piano), two pianos four hands (two players, each with a piano), one piano/six hands (three players on one piano - - rather crowded), three pianos/six hands (three players, each with a piano), and lots of other variants.

If you've never played duets before, here are some tips to help things go more smoothly.


Duet music is really ensemble music, and, as such, requires attention to how the parts fit together. Pianists often do not have much ensemble experience, and this is one major reason duets are excellent fare.


The treble part is called primo and the bass part secondo. Usually, especially in simpler music, the primo has the melody and is simpler than the secondo.

Frequently the secondo part is interludes of boring oom-pah, oom-pah between bouts of sheer terror (such as scales in sixty-fourth notes in the key of 10 flats).

Your Music Scores

It's best if you play from the same edition, especially as editorial opinion often colors the published result.

In any case, number all measures. Not just every five. Not just the ones at the beginning of each score. *Every single measure.* Suppose you get lost (as in a performance)? Your partner can whisper the measure number, and you'll know when to come in. You won't have time to look for the nearest marked measure, count to the proper measure, and have any hope of catching up, I promise you. Mark all measures.

Often, longer pieces have "rehearsal letters" identifying major sections. If not, you and your partner may wish to agree on where these should be and write them in together. If your piece does have rehearsal letters, check that the letters are in the same place on both parts. Even on scores from the same publisher (or side-by-side pages in the same book) have errors. Better to find out where they are now!

Learn Your Part Beforehand

If you possibly can, learn your part (or: sight-read all and woodshed the difficult spots) before meeting with your partner. Sight-reading duets is do-able, certainly, but there will be lots of inaccuracies and stops and not a lot of fun!

Be Familiar with Your Partner's Part

Do you have long periods of rest? If so, what is going on the other part? When does the other part have periods of rest or thin texture? This is when you'll be "solo," so make practice plans accordingly. (Do you need some more fingering? Bet you do!)

Be prepared to "take over" your partner's part (or a portion of it) in performance in the event one of you gets lost for a bit. If you can't take over the part, then be prepared to fake it. Oom-pah, oom-pah is not convincing as a finished texture if you're playing secondo, and a one-note melody will be too thin not to be noticed by the listeners if you're playing primo!

If the score printed on two separate parts, you will have to use part of your time together to scope out your partner's music.

Don't forget to decide who will handle any page turns. If each of you has a separate score (see next section), you're on your own, but, again, make sure you are familiar enough with your partner's part so you can fake it if you partner gets tangled in a page turn.


Because partners sometimes have to cover for each other - - or use the other part to help them find where they are - - for anything beyond the beginner level, I think it's best to lay out duets with both parts braced together, rather than primo and secondo on facing pages. Of course, you will have to train yourself to go to the proper place in the next score if you are the secondo player. (I make a check mark lightly with red pencil at the secondo part of the large brace, to catch my eye.)

In some editions laid out in two parts, the editor places small notes from the other part ("cue notes") in your long rests so you can double-check that you are following the part correctly/counting correctly.


Both partners must count perfectly to have the piece fit together correctly. If you are fairly laissez-faire about counting, as a general rule, you will brought up short by your sin immediately when you start playing duets! As my dad says, "In a duet, there's no prize for finishing first."

Therefore: count out loud! Both of you! If you both don't say "one" at the same time, there's trouble. Stop and find it.

Playing and playing while counting aloud are two different skills. Playing, counting aloud, listening to another part and to another person counting at the same time (are you saying the same numbers at the same time?) are three different skills. Each must be addressed separately.


When one partner has a rest, she had better count like crazy! In rehearsal or fun playing, you both will be counting aloud.

In performance (no matter the level), you both will be counting in your heads. I find the following is the best way to do it when there are rests, especially rests of several measures' duration. Track the number of the measure of the rest by changing the counting number at the beginning of the measure. Example in four-four time for three measures: ONE 2 3 4 , TWO 2 3 4 , THREE 2 3 4.


Traditionally, the secondo does the pedaling. Sometimes, though, it works better if the primo does it. I'd say that you should approach each piece separately, unless this is a student/teacher piece at a low level (upper intermediate or below).

Work out where you think pedaling should be for -your- part. Discuss it with your partner. If your partner is pedaling, note where this will happen so you can adjust articulation, add finger pedal, etc., as needed to make your own part musical.


Who has the melody and when? I find it very helpful to mark melody entrances and places where I need to be sure to back off so my partner's melody will come through. (Write a little red bracket mark at the beginning and ending of the melodic sections in each part - - it's necessary to know when the melody ends as well as it begins!) Where are the places - - if any - - where there is filler in both parts and no melody at all?


This is related to where the melody is. The melody always must be heard above the rest of the voices.

How is each phrase shaped? Where is the climax? That is the place that should be the loudest.

Are there any crescendos? In both parts or only in one? Decrescendos?

Where are the pp sections? Both parts? If you are preparing for performance, you will want to deal in detail with dynamics. If just for fun, you probably will be satisfied just to hit the major changes.


Decide how fast this piece should go. If for performance, decide on a metronome setting so you know where to aim. Start out slowly. Give this piece every bit of care you'd give any performance selection.

If there are ritards, accelerandos, etc., work these out in the initial stages of preparation. For fun playing for the two of you, fake it to the degree it's mutually satisfying.

Preparation for "Casual" Duet Playing

Even if you don't ever go on stage with this ensemble, you'll probably want to work it out well enough that the two of you feel satisfied with the result and come out together at the end of the piece. To that end:

Have fun! Playing duets is a real treat! I think you're going to be hooked!

I recently glanced through this book by a well-known husband/wife duet team and think adult duet players will find it helpful: The Piano Duet: a Learning Guide, Dallas Weekley and Nancy Arganbright (1996, Kjos), ISBN 0-8497-9598-2.

copyright 1997-2001, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
Contact me for reprint permission.

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