Recently, I challenged myself to use duets for everything me and my piano students did together in one lesson.
Because duets are one of the most important and motivating tools we piano teachers have in our bag of tricks. The difference I’ve observed in using duets with my piano students frequently has been profound…
1) Their rhythm and sense of pulse has become more ingrained and more natural
2) Their awareness of dynamics has improved
3) Their sense of phrasing and rubato has developed
4) They are no longer “deflating” when asked to play scales and triads or to sight-read
How Can You Use 7 Duets in One Piano Lesson?
To try this little experiment with my young piano students, I separated their lesson into 7 parts and added a duet to each part. The duets are simple: They are based on the primary chords in whatever key they were playing in, have a fun and catchy rhythm and are just improved by me as we go along.
Duet 1: Warm Ups
Warm ups and technique exercises can be pretty dry and boring. And while these short little warm-ups are important, my kids weren’t really engaged in the process. They’d play them and then came the “Can we play a song puhleeeze!!!” But when their warm ups became a piano piece they loved it… their part was easy and approachable but yet it sounded cool with what I was playing. Effortless aural reward is always a motivator for kids…. and they actually paid more attention to the technique that each exercise focussed on than they had previously.
Duet 2: Scales and Triads
I try to have my students learn the scale and triad for each of the pieces they are currently working on; whether that be a pentascale, one octave or two (depending on their level) and either just the outside intervals of a triad or the full 3-note chord. These also can be super boring, but when they became a duet my students were hooked. All they had to do was play their scale… and they were making music!
Duet 3: Method Book/Repertoire Work
Most method books come with a duet part for most pieces and I always use these… especially in the very beginner books. You can read why in this post.
Duet 4: Improv/Composing Time
With young piano students, improv can sometimes seem unapproachable as whatever they are able to do usually is just a right hand melody…not that aurally motivating. However, if you can give your students some simple and quick guidelines (i.e. “Use only the black keys and mix it up with quarter and eighth note rhythms”) while you provide the fuller sounding accompaniment, you’ll be surprised at the neat little motives and riffs they come up with.
Duet 5: Sight Reading
Again, young beginners who are sight reading are often reading “one-hand-at-a-time” excerpts that don’t really sound all that fun. Adding duets to sight reading is a great way to encourage good sight reading habits (a keen awareness of rhythm, the ability to “keep going no matter what” a sense of underlying pulse, an awareness of dynamics and articulation etc.) without verbally nagging 🙂
Duet 6: Review and Performance Practice
Breathe new life into old pieces by switching roles and teaching your student a duet part to their review pieces. It doesn’t need to be difficult by any means – use the primary chords and feel free to take out the 3rd of the chord for small hands. A funky rhythm is all it really needs to get your students’ ears engaged. You play the written music… they provide the accompaniment. It’s lots of fun for both of you and it gives them a whole new perspective on their old pieces.
Duet 7: Involve the Parents
It is SO MUCH FUN to grab a parent or sibling and “Rock Out” for the final few minutes of the lesson… even if this “guest” has no piano skills at all. Those of you who are PianoBookClub members can use May’s book “Duets for Me and My Not-So-Musical Mates” to easily include Mom or Dad or Grandma or Grandpa or Brother or Sister. Those of you who don’t have that particular book can easily come up with a one or two note pattern that “works” with one of your students’ method book pieces. This is a great way to bring a sense of family involvement into your lessons and it sends your student and their parents out the door with a smile.
Duet Books Are Great… But This is Better
That stack of duet books you’ve been collecting for years is fabulous; I love to pair students up for traditional duet work and they are always a favourite at recitals and performances. But using duets in a more frequent and informal way during lesson time is not only a good teaching method, but also lots of fun.
7 Duets in one lesson was certainly an undertaking… but it didn’t take more time than did a “normal” lesson. I actually spent less time talking and more time actively engaged in the music; a goal of mine for this coming year. The key is in letting go of perfection and just letting your music-making do the teaching.
If you’re looking for more ways to motivate your students you can check out The Adventures of Fearless Fortissimo series. Episode 2 even includes two student/teacher duets that will make adding duets to the repertoire part of your lesson simple and insanely motivating!