Playing piano duets often comes as a welcome treat to players because so much piano music is self-sufficient and solitary. Piano duets are also known as ‘piano four hands’ to differentiate between a two-piano duet, which is traditionally referred to as a ‘piano duo’. The piano duet became popular in the mid-late 18th Century thanks to composers such as Mozart who created Sonatas for four hands and Schubert ‘s Fantasie in F minor.
Later composers who wrote piano duets include Brahms, Dvorak, Grieg, Debussy, Bizet and Ravel. There are many pieces of free sheet music for piano four hands by well-known composers on IMSLP.
Before recorded music was created, piano duets were a way in which people got to know operas and orchestral music. In the 19th Century if you couldn’t attend a concert live, you could play the music at home in the form of a piano arrangement. In order to fulfil the range of all orchestral instruments, these would be transcribed for two players and four hands. Symphonies, chamber music and dance music transcribed for four hand arrangements brought a huge amount of music into the home that wouldn’t have been possible before.
Nowadays, piano duets are fondly looked upon as not only a way to perform pieces with an increased musical range, but also as a great and fun way to learn the instrument. Four hand piano pieces are often created as easy arrangements for students, so they’re only playing half a piano piece. Sheet music for piano duets are printed with the parts on opposing pages, which is also helpful for students mentally separating the parts into two as well as being visually clearer for the players.
Although piano duets can potentially halve the work, it’s good to be aware of who is playing the melody and who has the accompaniment when playing a piano duet. This can change throughout the piece, keeping you on your toes! It’s always good to practice your part before you start work with your partner and also know roughly how their part goes. This not only maximises your rehearsal time together but it means that you can be relied upon to be strong and confident in your playing, and can help lead your partner or help keep them in time if required.
Incorporating the slow practice method when your duo gets together is an excellent way of practicing well from the start. Piano duets require attention to detail, and so working to play through slowly is recommended for executing the interplay between parts as well as keeping a steady rhythm and timing.
Communication with non-verbal signals is one of the most fulfilling yet frustrating elements of performing a duet, as you both need to be able to interpret and anticipate what your partner will do next. This is particularly important when planning how to cover up any mistakes or slip-ups. Nods, gestures and subtle body language signals should be deciphered and honed in joint rehearsals as you get used to playing with the other person. Choosing predetermined points in the music that work well to ‘jump back in’ if one of you goes AWOL is invaluable, and this should be discussed and practiced together.
Once you know how to communicate, sight reading piano duets can be a lovely way to play with a friend or partner; Queen Victoria and Prince Albert used to enjoy this pastime, and Schumann is quoted as saying: “a four hand piece allows us reveries together with our beloved, provided she plays the piano.”
PlayScore 2 can be used as an accompaniment device when you are learning and practicing piano duets. PlayScore 2 will capture your sheet music and the built in playback options mean you can listen to both hands or alter the volume to isolate and mute single stave lines. You can slow the tempo and loop sections as you practice, all while visually following the score on screen. Using PlayScore 2 as an accompaniment tool to hear your partner’s piano duet parts can help you rehearse the musical interaction between you in a practical and independent way.