Lessons Learned from a Duet Christmas

December was a doozey. Isn't it for all musicians? I had one week were everything happened: recitals, concerts, rehearsals. The following week it was juries. Then I got sick. Then I was on break. And now it is 2015 and I have a lot to catch up on!

I was really excited about my plans for my students all learning duets for their December recital (you can read about that here). Here's what I learned about the need for collaborative work, assigning duets, rehearsing duets, and planning ahead:

My students needed to play with others. 

Some of them had never played with other people, either in a band/ orchestra context, or an accompaniment context. For those that had it wasn't often. The student who did best with the duets was actually the one who plays in an orchestra AND a band. She was great at following the other pianist and jumping back in when she got lost. For my youngest students it was starting to turn into a race. When they got lost or felt like they weren't playing together, they would just play faster! My takeaway was- they need to do this again. When I accompany them, I follow them, and help them out. As a trained pianist and accompanist it is hard not to! But when they play with others, that doesn't happen. It is the blind leading the blind. And it gets pretty scary. 

I should have picked other music.

My students toughed it out and learned their music. Sort of. But these arrangements were not written intuitively. Not at all. I played through them with a friend while trying to figure out which pieces to assign to which student and I noticed that our hands were really close, but I ignored what should have been a red flag. It wasn't a big deal for two trained pianists, but for students they were constantly running into each other and  having to learn how to get their hand out of the way in time. It wasn't a huge problem, but not ideal for a first duet situation. 

I needed more time. 

I was right about the difficulty of the music. It was hard for some and easy for others. We worked on the pieces a lot during lessons, but I didn't start early enough because I didn't take into account the inevitable cancellations of lessons. Losing even one or two lessons put one of my duet pairs significantly behind. I also didn't insist on enough rehearsal time with both partners together. I was trying to respect their time (and let's face it, their parents' time). I had grouped students based on ability and lesson times to maximize rehearsal times. But I still ran into scheduling problems and we wound up doing too much last minute rehearsing. I also had a solo piece picked for each student, but some of that music didn't come soon enough, and some students didn't start practicing it right away. We could have used much more time on the solo pieces, but we didn't have it. 

But we pulled it off! 

When all looks dreary, sometimes all you need to do is cut out parts. One student is struggling with a tricky part and the other student plays it well? Make that section a "solo" section. The piece will sound better and they will both feel better about it as a whole. In the final hour I did some serious reevaluating and worked with my students to re-think the parts that were messing them up the most. While I wanted them to try to learn it as written, I also didn't want them performing something messy just because I was holding onto an *arrangement* too strongly. As a result the final performance was ok. It wasn't wonderful, but it wasn't bad. And I'll take that. I also had to cut some of the solo pieces. I wanted them all to have something of their own to play as well as the duet, but we should have started on that earlier as well. The students who were prepared played their pieces, and those who weren't just played their duet. In the end it all worked. 

Next time, I will choose Christmas music during the summer and start it right away in September. 

Next time, I require that they practice together at least twice outside of dress rehearsals. 

And next  time, I will do a better job of selecting well-written duets. 

A Nutcracker (Duet) Christmas

Last Christmas, the biannual studio recital/dinner theater took me by surprise. I was still pretty new to the studio, pregnant, and just not on my game. My students rose to the challenge of learning their music in just a few weeks, but I didn't want to do that to either of us again. 

So this year we are starting in October! That sounds early until you consider that the event is the first week of December and we will loose a week in November for Thanksgiving.

My students play as part of the studio dinner theater, but the main event is the vocal group's performance. So far I hadn't really made the effort to have my students do much of a theme or anything along those lines. This year I am rested (well, kind of), know what to expect, know what my students can do, know their parents better to discuss new music, and all around am much more prepared, and on fire to do something fun.

I wanted a theme to tie everything together and I really wanted to incorporate duets.   Young pianists spend so much time playing by themselves, but once they become older pianists, the chance of them always playing solo works as some sort of concert pianist are very slim. Instead they may find themselves accompanying choirs, accompanying vocalists, playing for some sort of church service, funeral service, wedding, etc. What do these all have in common? Collaborative piano or accompanying. Playing with people. This is actually the kind of work that I love best, so I'd like to  give my students a taste of it as young as possible!

Then I happened on the Nutcracker. It occurred to me that it would be a fun Christmas theme, and even the easiest Nutcracker music would sound pretty cool with two people on the bench. I'm still in the process of assigning pieces, but I am really excited, and I can tell it is rubbing off on my students. So far they each have one duet and eventually they will each have one solo piece as well. Between all of them we will tell the (abbreviated) Nutcracker story! 

Here's the duet book that I am using: 

I have Elementary level students, Early Intermediate students, and Intermediate students, so this book is a little hard for some and little easy for others. It seems like it will work for all of them. For solo pieces, I am working from other Nutcracker books published by Alfred in various difficulty levels. Hopefully this will give a more cohesive sound. I can't wait to get started in those as well!