Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Keeping the love alive: Finding duets in solo repertoire

cornelis-saftleven-the-duetWhat can we teachers do to keep the love of music alive for our students? As I said in my opening blog last month, one of the best things we can do is to have our students make music with other people as much as possible. Whether we are teaching absolute beginners or advanced students, playing music with your teacher, sibling, or another student is always possible, and it is guaranteed to enhance solo playing, while also at the same time being informative, inspiring, and fun.

Finding duets … in unlikely places

We may agree that playing duets with our students is a great way to keep them engaged, but where can we find material? And how can we do this for all our students without having to buy an entirely new library of pieces for multiple players?

duet handsFor those of you who teach piano, I would suggest looking at Yiyi Ku’s excellent MTH blog on four-hand piano music, which also contains recommendations for scores that can be purchased on line.

For all instruments, including voice, there is much we can do to find music to play together with our students from the music we already have. The first step is to remember that every solo piece we play is already a duet – or at least a potential duet – and that the more time we teachers spend giving our students tools for unlocking the duet potential of their pieces, the more we will be opening up some of the most fascinating and enjoyable aspects of music making for them.

Every teacher will have their own way of approaching the music they teach, and every musician will of course see different patterns and other improvisational potential in the solo pieces they play. By way of example, here’s a brief overview of a few of the approaches I take both in my studio and in my work as a performer to unlock the duet potential of solo pieces. These examples use quite simple pieces to demonstrate my point, but of course the same approaches can be applied to music of all levels.

Finding the song

frans-van-mieris-the-elder-duetWhether a solo piano piece, a jazz standard, a Handel aria, or a Bach partita, every piece of music can in one way or another be reduced to a song, by which I mean a piece in two parts: a melody with an accompaniment. Sometimes the division between these two parts will be obvious (a Handel aria – a catchy tune with many repeated chords underneath!), while at other times they will be more blended (a Bach fugue or the development section of a sonata). But some form of melody and accompaniment will always be there: we simply have to take the time to learn to winkle them out.

Once we find a melody and accompaniment in a piece, we have found the basis of the duet hidden in the piece. (There are many possible versions of course; use your ear to find out what melody and accompaniment stands out as sounding most representative to you.) We will also have identified the building blocks for endless varieties of musical play, whether swapping parts, changing rhythms, or adding or subtracting melody notes or harmonies as we explore the piece together in two parts.

Finding the duet in a solo piano piece by Haydn

To show you what I mean, here’s an example from the solo piano repertoire: the first section of a simple binary form in Haydn’s Minuet in C (fig. 1).

hayden minuet in c

A teacher starting a student on this piece might start by *not* giving the piece, but instead providing the student with a harmonic pattern to play, for example something like this (fig. 2): [To make the scores shown here, I’ve used].

hayden minuet progression

The potential for duet playing with a pattern such as this is endless. The teacher can play both parts or one part, one person can play the pattern while another improvises over it, or one person can sing (if possible using solfège) while the other person plays.

Exploring the harmonic and rhythmic pattern in this way helps the musical imagination, increases the awareness of harmonic motion, and is of course just plain fun. Once this can be done freely by the student (including the second part of the binary form of course), the teacher can then give the piece, which will look strongly similar – but in key ways different! – than the general pattern on which it is based.

The soloist will now approach the piece completely differently. There will be much more to hear, many more patterns to recognize, variations to notice, and it will be much easier to play with natural emphasis both note-to-note and in phrases. In an important way, even the beginning student will be approaching the piece in a way that is much closer to the position the composer took. He or she, too, will have created the piece as a kind of fixed variation on some known pattern or improvisation.

Playing duets with singers

singer in recitalEveryone can benefit from duet playing, and if you teach singers, I would strongly recommend that you take them off the melody line and into other parts of the texture to get them thinking more broadly about the role the melody plays from their very earliest lessons.

As in the above example, singing teachers can do this by preparing a student for a piece by first giving them some form of harmonic outline, and then engaging with them in different levels of musical play. The teacher and student can swap parts; the student can learning how to both play and sing; and both teacher and student can trying out some improvisational singing over a chordal framework extracted from a solo song.

Here is an example of a simple chord progression taken from the first phrase of the song ‘Flow my teares’ by English composer John Dowland (fig 3).

flow my teares - chord progression approximation

Before starting students on the piece, teachers can give this progression to students to take home and practice to the point that they can play it fluidly enough to be able to improvise a sung melody as they play. (If they are really challenged at the piano, they can be asked to play just the bass line, or the bass line and the top note in the right hand.)

Improvisation is not easy for everyone, so it helps to give students some tips to start them off with confidence. Once they can play the bass line, they can be told to sing any note indicated in the treble clef in that bar. As they get better at this, they can try to sing all the notes in each treble clef bar, and then play around with these notes by singing different rhythms, and by filling in or leaving out notes in each bar as they please.

The key is to get the singers to listen to the chords as they sing and to learn to accept or reject notes that don’t ‘sound right’ (based on the style of the piece as made clear in the chord progressions) by trial and error. (For singers who do not play piano, a graphic representation of the chords on a picture of the keyboard will work very well instead of notated music in the first instance.)

You can also send the text of the song home with the singer to see what they come up with when asked to write their own realization of the lyric or poem over the composer’s chosen chord progression.

When the student then brings the material to their next lesson, both student and teacher can improvise together using the same methods. When the student is finally given Dowland’s melody (fig 4), his clever text setting and beautiful dissonances will be heard as the revelation they are.

Dowland Flow my teares

Singers who strum

orpheusIf your singing students play guitar, ukulele or other chord-based instruments, it can be hugely interesting and informative to get them to bring these instruments to their lessons and to try to ‘accompany’ themselves while singing. This works whether they are singing a Schubert song (many are based on existing folksongs that can be sung and compared to Schubert’s version), a Bach aria (often very elaborate note to note but quite simple harmonically when all the ornamental notes are removed), or the recitative from a Mozart opera (these cannot be sung correctly if you don’t know how the chords fit together with the cadence of the text).

The music will suddenly take on a completely different shape if singers are asked to think of their line as something that must fit together with an ongoing harmonic motion they are producing themselves, or that is being produced as part of alternating duet playing with their teacher in lessons. Without a doubt, once they are back in their role as soloists, their pianists and conductors will notice the difference immediately.

The elephant in the room

Careful readers will have noticed that there is one term that I’ve not used throughout this blog post: ‘music theory’. This is because, while I recognize that this can be taught separately from performance, I strongly believe that all performers must understand how music fits together, whether they acquire this knowledge instinctively through playing or through improvising as outlined above, or technically through other study.

Creating duets out of solo repertoire as part of the learning process is one way to do this. There is much more to say on this topic and I invite all readers to chime in on this thread by sharing their techniques and experiences in the comments below.

The solo duet

In closing, I’d just like to add that, as a singer, I’m rarely performing truly solo repertoire in a professional context. Inevitably there is a pianist or an orchestra present, so in this work, of course, I’m writing from the perspective of a chamber musician.

But, like most singers, I practice predominantly by myself, and in these moments one can feel very much like a soloist, finding one’s own way through complex music and text in a quiet room, alone. Being able to play other instruments is hugely helpful in this regard, and I would certainly encourage teachers to press their students on this point; it really is necessary for singers to have at least basic piano proficiency if they intend to be professionals, and it’s always better to start sooner rather than later.

But it’s also helpful for all so-called soloists to remember that, really, we are never playing alone: our composer, and if our music features text, our poet, are always in the room with us, actively seeking our improvisational (in the sense of unique) response to the infinite number of possible interpretations they have left open for us in the score.

Any skills we gain duetting with our teachers, family, and friends, will certainly increase our understanding, and enhance our musical pleasure. But they will also serve us well when it is most important: when we are duetting with our composers, alone.

About the Author


  1. Kathryn

    Thanks very much! Glad you like it. Do you have anything to add? I’d love to hear how others play with their students in lessons as well. Looking forward to your comments!

  2. Yiyi Ku

    Great post! It is great to have an “international” person on the blog team! Thanks for mentioning my duet repertoire blog, too!

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