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Two people playing violins together illustrating the blog post "The joy of playing duets" by Kathy Blackwell, on the OUP blog.

The joy of playing duets

At a recent string teachers’ conference, coffee break in full swing, a delegate got out his violin and began to play a lively tune. Within minutes he was joined by another who spontaneously improvised a second part. It was a delight to all who were present.

There is clearly an irresistible appeal to playing with another musician. Practising a musical instrument can at times be a lonely pursuit; playing with a friend or teacher can make for a richer and more satisfying musical experience than playing on one’s own.

Indeed, the duet genre has attracted composers throughout musical history. Piano duets became increasingly popular from the second half of the eighteenth century. Before the age of recordings, piano duet versions of symphonies, large scale orchestral works, and operatic highlights allowed domestic players to become familiar with music that they might never hear live. Mozart and his sister Nannerl regularly performed duets as they toured around Europe and Mozart wrote several sonatas for four hands at one piano.

Pianists looking for duet repertoire have a rich range of material to choose from. From compositions by Brahms, Dvorak, Debussy, and Poulenc to the increasingly popular music of Fanny Hensel Mendelsohn, Amy Beach, and Cecile Chaminade, piano duettists have no shortage of repertoire to choose from.

“There is a human need for connection: music is a social activity that binds us together.”

Similarly, violinists are spoilt for choice when it comes to duet repertoire. Mozart’s “easy” violin duets K 487 (often a student’s first introduction to “real” duet playing), the joyful Telemann Six Canonic Sonatas, the enduringly attractive violin duets of Pleyel, Dancla, and Mazas: these have all been the mainstay of many violinists’ musical journey. Bartok’s 44 Duos for Two Violins, intended to be pedagogical works rather than for concert performance, give players a wonderful experience of intricate rhythms, poly tonality, canons, and inversions. From the wonderfully exuberant classical style of Maddalena Sirmen to the exciting musical language of Polish composer Graźyna Bacewicz, the violin duet repertoire is rich and wide-ranging.

As part of any musical training, the learning and playing of duets has many benefits. A teacher-pupil duet may help encourage a strong sense of pulse and rhythm. Playing and sight-reading duets that are at an easier technical level than a player has achieved can also boost confidence and help develop sight-reading skills—you have to keep up! A recent development with some music examination boards now sees duet playing appear as an option in some instrumental music examinations.

Teachers will often ask their students to think about particular things when playing duets, such as:

  • Am I playing a tune or an accompaniment?
  • Do I need to adjust my dynamics to achieve better musical balance?
  • What’s happening in the harmony at this point?
  • Am I able to make eye contact with my duet partner?

Learning and practising these important ensemble skills is an essential part of any musician’s development.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is a human need for connection: music is a social activity that binds us together. Playing duets can be a joyful, fruitful, and musically engaging activity. It may even give players the confidence to get their instrument out in a café during the coffee break and start duetting with someone… bringing a joyful smile to all who listen.

Featured image: Violin duet performance by cyano66 via Canva

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