Value of Duet & Ensemble Practice

One of my favorite things to do in lessons is to play duets with students, or better yet, have them play in ensemble with each other. We even have an entire performance centered around ensemble and collaborative piano skills with our Multi-Piano & Guitar Christmas Festival every year. So why do we make a point to play along with other musicians in our piano study? In this post we'll look at the unique benefits and musicianship skills we learn in collaborative music making. 

Builds Focus

Something as simple as starting a song at the same time requires young students to focus in on their music and the directions they are being given. If we are working over a specific section and their instructions are to start from a certain measure, and they start at the wrong spot, that is a great teaching moment to be sure we are practicing both listening and understanding the instructions that are given. While playing a duet, each note also becomes more important, and passages that a student may have had a habit of muddling through will really get highlighted as a spot they want to zero in on for some extra practice. 

Builds sense of timing and flow

This is one of my favorite aspects of playing duets and ensembles because it is such an essential musicianship skill. When we are playing along with other musicians, we can generally feel the beat and flow of the music and will intuitively try to sync up with that in our own playing. Students get practice in recovering from small errors without losing the flow of the music, which is a very important skill for solo musicians as well. Ensemble playing is a very rewarding way to build this understanding of rhythm and timing while also playing music that sounds big and impressive. And this sense of musical flow carries over to individual playing too as students learn to feel rhythm within their bodies and not just as an abstract mark on a page. 

Builds aural skills

When we're playing with other musicians, the first thing we have to do is listen. Listen to the conductor, to the music happening around us, and to where our own part fits into that greater whole. Students learn about balance between different parts - maybe we want to bring out the melody more here, so anyone playing the accompaniment should play softer, maybe we really need to exaggerate that pianissimo section in order to really feel the music get very soft because there are more musicians playing. Maybe we notice that if we don't all hit really crisp staccatos in a marked passage it can sound muddy instead of bouncy or playful. Ensembles give us an immediate aural feedback about how the music sounds, and we can also carry that skill into our own playing and really listen to the music we're making to hear how we can continue to grow it.

Builds a Sense of Musical Success

Playing in ensembles is just incredibly fun and rewarding. There's something about making music collectively that really fires up the happy centers in our brains, it probably goes back to the fact that humans social beings and our species has a long history of giving music cultural significance in traditions, ceremonies and celebrations - but I'm not a scientist or anthropologist, so that's just a guess. I personally feel the 'good brain juice' the most when there are really compelling harmonies or rhythms that are executed well, whether it's in vocal, piano or other ensemble music. If music has ever given you goosebumps or brought tears to your eyes, it's that same sense of connection and awe that can happen when you make music with a group. It just feels really good to be a part of that as something way deep down inside of us reacts to that musical connection. And this feeling isn't relegated to only those who can play advanced music, we see this all the way down to preschool students with their big smiles and shouts of 'we did it!' when they finish playing an ensemble piece - and that is why I start duets and ensembles right away with my students regardless of age. Because at it's core, I think we make music to express ourselves and connect with other people.  

So how can you help your piano kid get these ensemble benefits at home? 

  • Backing Tracks - For my students, backing tracks and duet tracks are made available of any of the songs you'll be working on that have them. Try playing along with these in your home practice. 
  • Play or sing along - if you have a musical background, pick up your instrument and play along with them! If not, try singing. Lots of our method book songs have words, or maybe you and your piano kid can make some lyrics up for songs that don't have them. 
  • Dance or play around with body beats - One of the big benefits of ensemble music is learning to feel the beat and flow of the music in our bodies because we hear the music in the room around us. Another way to achieve this is to choreograph a dance party, or make up a body beat for a favorite song.