5 top tips for practising duets and trios
By Melanie Spanswick
Pianists tend to be isolated creatures. They spend hours sitting alone at the keyboard, practising their pieces, and once those pieces are securely learned, they sit on stage, in front of friends and family, or, perhaps in an exam room, playing through those works. However, when there is an opportunity to play with others, such as playing a duet or a trio, the pianist has the chance to enjoy the feeling of camaraderie and the joy of sharing a musical experience, as well as having a bit of fun. But how does one select suitable repertoire and make the most out of a duet practice session? Here are a few ideas:
1 When choosing piano duets (four hands at one keyboard) or piano trios (six hands at one keyboard), ensure sufficiently easy pieces are selected. Keep in mind your level, and that of your duet partner, or partners if you are playing a trio; find music which is currently below the standard of each player – possibly as much as two grades below. If you do this, emphasis will be on fun and enjoyment as opposed to the struggle and fear often associated with overcoming technical difficulties.
2 Once pieces have been located, if they aren’t immediately ‘sight-readable’, make sure that you have all looked at your musical part before the first joint practice session takes place, so that everyone is at least acquainted with notes patterns and fingerings. This will provide each player with the necessary confidence and concentration required to focus on the music and ensemble playing. The first time you work together, it may be a good idea to find simple pieces to read through just so that you can become familiar with each other’s playing style and level.
3 When working on your new piece or pieces, it can be helpful to mark places in the score as ‘starting’, or picking up, points, as if the piece is longer, it’s too easy to become lost and not know where to begin again.
4 A particularly beneficial technique when playing duets or trios is to play through each hand separately; start with both right hand parts (or three right hand parts, if you are playing a trio), then both left hand parts, followed by, for example, the primo’s, or upper part’s, right hand and the secondo’s, or lower part’s, left hand, and vice versa. This will allow each ensemble member to really know what is happening in all parts, it’s also a useful way to practice that vital ensemble technique: listening. Duets force us to listen to each other carefully, therefore, fostering excellent musicianship skills.
5 Once this has been assimilated, play all parts together but at a very slow tempo; at least half that of the intended speed or less. It can help to use a metronome at this stage; try setting the beat or ‘tick’ to a subdivision of the beat to ensure accuracy. Once secure, increase speed gradually (if your piece has a swift tempo). Finally, turn your attention to establishing ‘breathing’ places or spaces in the music as well as implementing the necessary phrasing, shaping, dynamics, and pedalling.
If you would like to find a piano duet partner, head over to my Facebook group, Adult Piano Returners, where you’ll find over 20,000 like-minded souls who all share your passion for piano playing.
If you’d like repertoire suggestions, Snapchats Duets & Trios provide perfect ensemble material. Published by 80 Days Publishing, Book 1 takes students from pre-grade 1 to Grade 3 – and the pieces have been written in all styles, including jazzy works. You can find out more about these books, and hear the music, here.
Listen to a trio from Book 1 (‘Joyful’) performed by 54 piano teachers on 18 pianos at Cristofori Music School in Singapore, recorded in July 2023.