"Perfessor" Bill's Guide to Ragtime and Old-Time Piano Duets
The topic of How to Play nearly anything on a musical instrument is obviously broad, even more so on piano, and is therefore difficult to avoid tainting with the author's bias. I am still bravely attempting, after a plethora of requests, to compile a guide to arranging and performing Ragtime/Old-Time piano duets. I hope that you find it useful and informative in some regard. I only ask a couple of things. Many of the ideas in here come not just from me, but from many of my ragtime compatriots and acquaintances. Where they are mentioned, please remember that many of them have a web presence as I do. See what they have to say, and remember to patronize our sites and take advantage of our products as you can. One of the better learning techniques is to listen and learn from our live recordings. We also have original sheet music for sale (I will soon have some duet Secondos as well), and all this helps support our sites and continue to bring you accumulated knowledge such as is presented here. The second thing... please don't get better than me. Musician egos are tenuously fragile!
Tips For Arranging and Performing Ragtime Piano Duets
An Essay on How To Arrange For and Perform
Ragtime Piano Duets in Varying Configurations
by Bill Edwards:
Contents Copyright ©2005/2015 by William G. Edwards
PREFACE and PREMISE
Regarding my concert appearances as one half of the The All American Ragtime Boys (with Marty Mincer), or our recordings of duets, or even when I play with other artists, I am often approached about two different things - "Where can I get music for your arrangements?" and "How do you do that?" I will endeavor to answer both of these questions (without giving away TOO many secrets) on a level that hopefully both listeners and performers who have little or no duet experience will find engaging and demystifying. Know that this is backed by two decades of experience playing over the years with artists as diverse as Marty, Dr. Dave Majchrzak, John Arpin, Sue Keller, Glenn Jenks, Dan Grinstead, Brian Holland, Jeff Barnhart, Adam Swanson, Adam Yarian, and even some up and coming younger artists. We exchange ideas as readily as licks, and discussions I have had with other duet teams turn up identical or similar approaches to the art. I have found that there is some variance in the methodolgies I will present here, but they are mostly adaptations to a particular situation. Note that this applies largely to ragtime piano, but can also be adapted to old-time music or newer forms (classical music excluded, as explained later). Therefore, we will hopefully lay a good foundation here to put you on the road to learning simply how to "du-et well."
FOUNDATION and BACKGROUND
Before we get too far,
I will need to be [brutally] honest with the performers reading this who want to engage in duet activities. There is a certain skill-set required for duets that goes beyond the basics for performing ragtime piano in the first place (read my article on Playing Ragtime
to review those basic necessities). There are many players who can either acquire or already inherently possess these skill-sets, and there are others out there who will either struggle to get to that level or may need to be content as a listener. I would make a terrible tailor (bad fit for me), squeamish surgeon (not cut out for it), lousy entomologist (a profession that bugs me), and a so-so marine biologist (not deep enough for that). However, I make a helluva ragtime pianist as a combination of inherent and inherited talent and exposure and training as I grew. So please don't take my assessment of those who are lacking in this regard as an insult or disparaging observation, since there are things I simply can't or won't do as well. Just the same, even if you are in the category of an adequate player, please stay with me because there is hope for you as a duet player.
As a general rule with most of the duet acts I know of, one of the players provides the foundation and the other plays around what the first one does. In the case of The All American Ragtime Boys, Marty Mincer is the foundation, and I play around his particular arrangements. In the Arpin/Wilson duets of the 1980s, Catherine Wilson provided the basics and John Arpin the workarounds, with a little trading off. In the Tichenor family when they performed with the late Trebor Tichenor, Virginia provided the foundation while either her father Trebor or husband Marty Eggers played off what she did. Again, there is often some trading of duties. I heard a similar sentiment from the Canadian Duo Two Pianos Alive as well. This seems to be more the rule than the exception. However, there are exceptions, particularly when you get two strong players. Such would be the case with Brian Holland and Jeff Barnhart, both alpha dogs with enormous command of the keys, and similarly the late Trebor when he faced off with Marty E. We will cover the exceptions further down, but we will start with the more common rules first.
Note that for the following section that some assumptions will necessarily be made about one or both performers interested in exploring duets. Both need to be versed in playing ragtime at some level. At least one needs to have some command of the original ragtime sheet music. At least one needs to be adept at improvisation and/or embellishment of arrangements either by instinct or through knowledge of harmony and theory. It is also helpful if both players are familiar with at least the set arrangements either of the sheet music or of the player who sets the foundation. Issues with the usual ragtime demons, such as limited dynamics and accelerating tempos, need to be worked out for one or both players before successful duets are attempted. Finally, at least one of the players needs to be put in charge, if not both equally, of picking a repertoire that will not only work for them but will be appropriate to the mode of piano duets they will be working within. If these minimal assumptions have been or can be addressed, the rest of what is presented here will be much easier to ascertain and achieve.
ONE PIANO/FOUR HANDS
One piano duets have been ever-popular for a variety of reasons, the primary one being that a majority of venues don't readily have two pianos to work with, or at least two compatible pianos. All that is required for performance is a piano and a bench. The preference would be either a duet bench (these are wider than standard piano benches) or even two artist's seats, but these can sometimes collide or make noise depending on how the pianists move when they sit. Otherwise, a single piano duet can be performed in the most impromptu of situations as readily as on the concert stage. I have performed 12th Street Rag many times on a single piano with as many as four people (8 hands), and as spectacular as it looks, little of musical interest can actually be achieved in this case. Think about it - 88 notes and 40 fingers. Hmmm. So while a fifth hand could be useful from time to time, four are usually quite adequate. It can also echo the sound achieved by many of the great player piano rolls of the 1910s through 1950s, many of which were performed by one pianist making two passes.
- Division of Duties: Naturally one of the pianists is going to handle what would be considered the left-hand duties of the piece, and one of them the right hand duties. While pick-up improvisations on known pieces can be achieved with skilled players, collisions are still quite possible if certain rules are not followed or pieces are not pre-arranged. Generally, a good rule of thumb in this case is to set a split point, even though it will ultimately be a moving target. Depending on the key the piece is in, the E or F above Middle C is a good split point for general purpose playing. The left player would then keep the chord triads at or below this point while the right player works the melodic line to avoid going down too far below it.
When discussing the primary and secondary player here, a different dimension needs to be broached. For example, my partner Marty Mincer, for all his inherent talent and arranging ability, admittedly has problems with single piano duets because he thinks in terms of being a single player at all times. When he plays to the right he still includes the oom-pah in the upper register, and when he plays to the left he tends to include the melodic line in the lower register. (That's why we use two pianos.) The player who can best negotiate melodic lines with their left hand, and play melodic lines in tandem or in harmony between their hands, or even can comp (play a static chord line) with the left hand while playing melodies in the right, should be the primary or right player. This leaves the bass duties to the left player, who will do more than simply provide bass and chords, as there are possibilities for lower melodic lines and counter-melodies as well.
- Arranging: Single piano arrangements will ultimately have fewer possibilities for giant sweeping passages and rich reinforced harmonies than two piano duets, but they do not need to be boring by any means. Both similarities and differences in styles between the players can most certainly be utilized in an effective fashion. David Montgomery and Cecil Lytle have done some very effective work that highlights this. Lytle comes from the black perspective and Montgomery from the white, so both learned their ragtime in a different fashion. Yet the varying approaches in both hands, be they cascading octaves or variations in left-side rhythms, meld together for some very satisfying results. As long as each player knows the characteristics of the other player, or even specifics about what they are likely to do in a particular passage, then it should not be hard to decide who will be dominant in a certain measure or passage.
- Left Side: The left player is the foundation of each piece, even if they are considered secondary to the melody. While the most obvious and often effective approach is to play lower octaves with three or four note chords centered around Middle C, there are other things that could work as well. For the more muted or dynamically quiet passages, single notes should be used, and perhaps in the second octave rather than just the first. Variances in rhythm (discussed in Playing Ragtime), such as oom-pah-pah oom-pah-pah oom-pah can also be quite effective, and more complex rhythms are easier to work out in this regard than with a solo piano performance. Counter melodies can also be used, but since the left player is usually confined effectively to less than an octave and a half range in the tenor area, these need to be carefully planned out to avoid harmonic and physical collisions. Other fun things include growing tremolos leading up to some cadences, occasional boogie-like bass lines, and even two-handed bass melodic lines underneath treble chords. For the most part, however, the left side player does not need the same improvisational skills as the right, and can most certainly get by just by reading the score and enriching the bass notes with octaves while playing the written chords.
As will be seen in the two piano scenario, one player usually needs to listen while the other simply performs. This concept is a bit more difficult in the context of a single-piano performance, but for the most part, the left player should be listening to many aspects of the right player. These include dynamics, tempo changes, pauses and stylistic cues. Conversely, the right player needs to depend on the steadiness of the left player's beat while not being tasked to consciously listen to it. The left player is more often than not the one who handles the pedaling duties as well, which require further listening. However, in four hand one piano duets, there are more opportunities for good legato playing since the hands can remain in the same general area without the normal movement required in solo piano ragtime. Therefore, pedaling can be relatively sparse if it is required at all, which will more often be in slower classic ragtime passages. Trust between the players that whoever is pedaling will handle it deftly is an important factor.
- Right Side: The right player is the identity or character of each piece, but should not let this aspect of what they do overwhelm the overall performance. Use of the right hand in the upper parts is easy for most pianists. But for those who have not done four hand work before, particularly ragtime or old-time based performers, the left hand can be problematic. Since the left player is covering the rhythmic chords, and the right hand is on the melody, what can be done? The melody can be played in octaves in many cases, although for rags with chords as part of the melody, or where the melodic line covers more than an octave in a short space, there needs to be another method. This is often accomplished through more static chords. If these chords echo the harmonic changes as they happen and are sustained, they will not necessarily conflict with the rhythm the left player is providing. If the chords are low enough, they will also enrich the overall sound, particularly in flatted keys where the harmonies are richer. Another possibility, although one that should be used sparingly, is to play the chords on each beat in rhythm with the secondo. After eight measures or so this can sound overly redundant, so care should be taken on how it is utilized. For more skilled players, sixths or tenths, especially on scalar or chromatic passages, are very effective. Consider also that even though there may be harmonies built into the right hand, common in Joplin and Lamb works, that simply playing the melodic line without the harmonies for at least one iteration of a passage provides a nice contrast.
As far as listening, the right player needs to focus largely on what they are playing since they are providing the more identifiable aspects of any particular piece. If the left player provides a good rhythmic beat, and one or both players are even tapping or stomping their feet, then the rhythm becomes embedded into the performance and will be obvious to the right player in a subliminal fashion. If a right player chooses to pedal, however, they will need to be more conscious of the articulation in the left player's lines, since pedaling in ragtime is often driven more by rhythm (keeping the lower octave sustained until the chord is played) than by phrasing needs. A right-side player pedaling to fit their articulation might instinctually fit the phrasing they are looking for, but may also muddy the lower part of the performance. Pedaling is a negotiation with what needs to be held and what does not, so needs to be very carefully mapped out if the right player is going to handle those duties.
- Repertoire: While the scope and variety of a one-piano four-hand performance may be limited by what the one piano can do, the repertoire available to this mode of playing actually exceeds that in many regards of two piano arrangements, but comes with some caveats as well that fall in line with the collective abilities of the performers. Most of the ragtime and old-time song reservoir of music can easily be translated or expanded into four-hand performances. However, there are some passages in certain pieces that may be hard to handle smoothly. For example, the Lion Tamer B section and Rubber Plant Rag trio have descending arpeggios that readily cross that division line. In Lion Tamer it spans almost the entire keyboard. This either requires that the right player reach over the left while finishing these passages, or that a handoff of some kind take place. Such passages may not work so well with most duo-pianists, and such pieces need to be considered for elimination if they can't make it work smoothly. Then there are novelty pieces, which also tend to span vast stretches of the keyboard. Montgomery and Lytle managed Kitten on the Keys on one of their records, but at a slower clip than most soloists perform the piece. Precision timing on Mayerl, Confrey and Bargy pieces is often critical, and given some of the intricate rhythms, may be hard to achieve with four hands. A good and strong performance of Black and White Rag or The Charleston might better bolster the repertoire of single piano duos, but in the end it depends on your collective abilities. Your best judges in this regard are either your peers (who in ragtime are typically non-competitive), or yourselves via a recording. Things sound different when you are not playing, so you have a chance to be more objective AND subjective when not concentrating on just your role.
TWO PIANOS/FOUR HANDS
Clearly the dynamics involved in two piano performances are quite different than single piano duets. They require a higher degree of skill by the primary pianist at the very least, ideally both, and a number of new variables are introduced that make such performances an increased challenge to say the very least. This is not meant to discourage those who want to try it, but I believe that many duet players will reinforce what will be discussed in this section, since they have often encountered these same challenges. If any of them write further comments on this article, I will gladly post them as well. Know also that we need to approach the two piano duets from at least two different directions to accommodate varying skill-sets and conditions. There are some details left out of this discussion, but some are often related to one particular type of passage or even one piece in some cases. While certainly more comprehensive than an overview, know that the future holds moments of individual discovery as well in the world of two piano duets.
- Division of Duties: There is more equality in two piano work as both players have the same wealth of sound resources at their fingertips. However, without some clear direction, musical collisions can be more common than musical collusion, and there is an ever-present risk of too many notes and too much sound. For purposes of some level of simplification, this section is divided into two parts.
When one player either has less ability in improvisation or is simply stronger in the fundamentals of the ragtime repertoire, that player should likely be the alpha-performer of the duet, or even for a particular piece as duties can be traded. This means that they will provide the foundation for the performance - the musical rock as it were. This does not mean that they have to stick to the score. In the case of Mincer and Edwards, Mincer creates his own realizations of rags and has a number of clever arrangements that go far outside the scope of the printed score. However, he is less comfortable going too far outside of those performances, and finds adjusting his playing to work around somebody else's performance to be difficult at best. So it is his arrangements that become the foundation for the Bill and Marty duets. With a good secondo partner, even a well-crafted performance that stays close to the printed score makes for a viable duet. Virginia Tichenor is one of these players who is creative as a soloist and solid as a primary duetist. She most certainly has strong performance chops and presents wonderful variations on the score. But for duet work, she tends to stick largely to the basic melodic and harmonic elements of a piece, if not the printed page. Given her strong left hand and clear melodies, she makes for a very strong foundation to work with for Marty Eggers' secondos. Creativity does not need to be stifled by any means, but it needs to be accounted for in advance. Consistency in performance by the primary pianist most certainly allows latitude for creative duets as well. The secondo player is the one that either reinforces what the primary player is doing at pitch or in higher or lower octaves, or plays harmonic counterparts or even counter melodies. They should also know when to lay low and when to let loose. The secondo player's ability to listen carefully and improvise judiciously is much more important than sticking to or even knowing how to read the score.
Then there is the case where both players are true characters. I have encountered this on rare occasions, and without prior discussion or even eye contact/body language dialog during a performance, some very interesting things can occur. Marty Eggers notes this when he performs with Trebor, as does Dan Grinstead when he performs with players like myself or Glenn Jenks. Alex Hassan is another one of these characters that creates brilliantly colorful accompaniments on the fly. When any two of us creative-types play together, we might both tend to play counter-lines or creative embellishments at the same time, rendering the melodic line or other fundamental elements of a piece inert or missing. So in these cases, the division or trade-off of duties and how to signify them must be clear. This is particularly effective on repeated riff pieces like boogies, blues or old-time songs. Two powerhouse players (Brian and Jeff again come to mind) can create a mind-boggling and truly effusive wall of sound playing in some form of unison, but as long as one lays out or sticks to the script while the other one goes to town, extended performances with lots of variety will be the result. Trading off can also occur in a number of ways. Jazz musicians are intimately familiar with the concept of "trading fours" or "trading twos" in which two or more instruments do a round robin taking that number of measures at one time. Even single chords can be bandied back and forth as long as the rhythmic thrust is kept. So dual creativity should not preclude great duet playing, but it should not overwhelm it either.
- Arranging: There are several possible approaches to creating two-piano arrangements, but I will focus largely on a couple of them here, noting that the rest are pretty much variants on the theme. The more common of these previously mentioned is where the secondo player works around either the set arrangement or score representation of the primary player. This means that the secondo player enhances or reinforces what the primary player is doing, hopefully without clutter and interference. There are many more opportunities to introduce negative elements into a performance when two pianos are in use, particularly in the left hands. However, some careful planning and listening will allow avoidance of these issues. The second approach is the trade-off method, used prominently by the talented Labeque Sisters on their Glad Rags album. Both are alpha players, so one provides the backdrop for the other's passage at any one point, or both may create a crushing wall of sound playing similar phrases. The back and forth musical dialog is very effective and affecting, but requires more work from both players. In those cases, both of the descriptions below apply in a ping-pong manner, and as a whole.
- Primary: The primary player is the foundation of each piece, even if they play only the piece as written or with little embellishment. Any good church musician knows that a strong melodic foundation is necessary to encourage singing from the congregation, or at least establish some familiarity during a performance. If both pianists break ranks too far from the score, they can lose the listener in this excursion unless they touch base with that foundation from time to time. Still, variations like higher octaves or mild alterations to the syncopation can be used with no negative impact to the performance. Variations in the left hand, however, can result in clashes with the secondo player's left hand if they are not explicitly planned for. For example, if one is playing the normal duple oom-pah oom-pah oom-pah oom-pah and the other breaks into a common stride variation of oom-pah-pah oom-pah-pah oom-pah, the effect will more than likely not work if presented at equal volumes. In the same vein, congruent bass lines are also important. If the primary player plays I V I V and the secondo tries I V III I for the bass notes, the third and fourth bass notes provide opportunity for muddy clashing, which will potentially also create dissonance and add clutter to the piece. Therefore, the primary player needs to largely "stick to the script" and be consistent in their presentation.
To further reinforce this is the contention of players like Virginia Tichenor, Marty Mincer and others who provide this foundation that they often do better when concentrating on their own performance. Both have noted that if they start listening to what the other pianist is adding to the mix that they will become fascinated or distracted enough that they lose focus on their part, sometimes causing a diminished effect as both pianists start compensating for each other in this regard. Listening to how well performers like Marty Eggers, Dan Grinstead, etc. add some brilliant lines to otherwise ordinary rags, creating a highly palatable texture, the author fully understands how such distractions are created. So the primary pianist, depending on their overall ability to multi-task, needs to focus on being that rock and keeping good dynamic contrast and steady tempo as well. Even in solo performance that is a lot to pay attention to. They are also responsible for starting the piece, signaling dynamics, and pulling back when the secondo might temporarily take the lead.
- Secondo: The secondo player is, in a sense, like the baritone in a barbershop quartet. Listen to the baritone line alone and it may not make a whole lot of sense, but remove it from the quartet mix and you have a thin sound and many unrealized chords and textures. The secondo enhances the primary pianist and creates layers and pastiches in the process. What can be done to achieve this? There are many tricks that were employed by player piano artists from the 1910s on that can be further expanded on with the addition of another 88 notes. In addition to playing nearly in unison for opening passages, the most basic variation is when the melody is played in a lower or higher octave than the primary pianist. This creates either a fat or bright sound overall and reinforces the melody. It is apropos for forte passages, particularly the first or last 16 measures of a piece. A second enhancement is a harmonic line that echoes the main melody of the piece. For example, in Black and White Rag the secondo can play a third or sixth above the melody to great effect, particularly in the arpeggios of the B section. This also applies to the B section of many Joplin pieces, such as the Maple Leaf Rag While these two variations are easy, they don't provide the variety necessary to create a memorable performance.
One of the more effective methods of contrast is for the secondo to lay out for eight or sixteen measures. During this time they can simply play rich bass chords, sort of an expanded realization of the left hand role in a single piano duet, along with a single sustained harmonic note in the tenor for each two or four beats. When the original score played by the primary is sparse, a counter line that is relatively active may also be considered as long as it enhances the main melody. Too much information in this regard can clutter the piece, as can a counter-line played in the same octave or octaves as the primary part. This can work for short bursts, but depending on the equality of the pianos or the balance of sound, both parts can become indistinct, when a separation of the two is desirable. There are even times when pulling back out of the lower octaves just to provide chordal reinforcement can further change the overall timbre, providing increased contrast when lower notes are resumed. For the most part, the secondo needs to avoid playing what the primary part is playing, at least in the right hand, except for short passages where it may be deemed as effective.
As far as listening, the secondo needs to be acutely aware of what the primary is playing at all times, and be able to adjust for any changes. Of course they need to know the piece at hand, but should allow for some spontaneity of performance by the primary pianist, which is sometimes driven by the enthusiasm of the listeners, and sometimes the spirit of the moment for a particular performance. This also means being sensitive to not playing over the primary part. This can be difficult since experience tells most pianists that one of the worst places to listen to the instrument is the very place from where it is played. On consoles and uprights, the majority of sound comes from the rear of a piano, even when the front is taken off. On grand pianos, the sound spreads upwards and downwards, reflecting off the lid and the floor. For a piano with the right side toward stage front, this sends the best sound out to the audience. Therefore, compensation needs to be made by the secondo (usually the pianist to stage left in a two-grand piano configuration) to be able to listen to the primary pianist, who in most cases will not be listening to them. Use of the una corda or soft pedal will not only help, but can provide additional textures for the backdrop as well. Too much use of the sustain pedal can have the opposite effect, and should be considered for necessity, particularly on faster pieces. Listening to recordings made from the audience perspective can be useful in formulating secondo parts as well as adjusting for volume, tempo, and other factors.
- Pianos and Setup: Unlike a single piano situation where both pianists have the same perspective and advantages or disadvantages, a two piano setup introduces a number of factors that need some compensation in many cases. The first should be a given, but is not always properly implemented - the tuning of the instruments. At the very least, both instruments should be tuned to the same central pitch (such as A=440/442). If the pianos are the same size, this will result in tunings that are in theory nearly identical. However, if you are working with a 7' and 9' piano, or even further apart, anomalies are quickly introduced. Each piano can be properly in tune with itself, but not with each other. The further you get from the reference point, the larger the differences can be. A good technician will be able to compensate for this by either knowing the proper stretching variables to use on (usually) the smaller instrument, or having an assistant play a reference note from the larger piano from time to time to see how close the two are.
Also, two identical pianos do not necessarily make for the best possible sound. Part of the enjoyment of listening to four hand arrangements on two pianos is the distinctness between the two players, something easily lost when the sounds are nearly identical. This can be solved by using two differently size pianos, two differently aged pianos, or pianos by varying manufacturers. Of course in most cases there will be no choice in this, and the latter situation is most likely to be the norm in concert halls, churches, schools, etc., which is all to the better. But when a choice is available, look for the different sounds. Baldwins and Young Changs tend to sound more percussive, Yamahas more bright, and Kawais and Steinways a bit more mellow, depending on the age and construction. Mason & Hamlin grands have a characteristically rich sound while old Chickerings work very well for counter lines. Should you ask - an upright with a large grand is not a recommended combination. Your mileage may vary, but it is worth the effort to find the best possible variance. At all costs, try to avoid using an electronic or digital piano with an acoustic piano because the amplification becomes an issue when matching aural scope, tone and sound distribution. This becomes painfully evident in a hall where no amplification is applied to the acoustic piano.
Remaining setup factors are those that account for good eye contact and the ability for one or both pianists to hear each other. Two grands opposite each other but separated by at least a foot or more provides a good environment for communication. For balance, the lid on the secondo, often facing towards the back of the stage, can be up completely while the primary lid can be up on the first notch. In some cases where hearing is a problem, like an outdoor venue, a monitor can be put in place for the pianists to listen to. However, if what they hear is a mix rather than an individual feed, it can complicate the process since they might not be able to discern their own part. The author has found that a monitor for the secondo that is mixed heavily towards the primary piano can work very well. Once the secondo learns the proper compensation between their piano and the monitor, the performance should be easier to get through, providing the sound person leaves that part of the mix alone. This can even work in a place where no sound is sent to the audience. In some cases, an in-ear monitor can be used, but this can sometimes make it harder to hear the instrument the secondo is playing. You will need to try what might work best for you, but know that the overall setup throws in as many variables as the pianos themselves.
- Repertoire: Less is more. That's an old cliché, of course, but to some degree it applies to the repertoire of two-piano arrangements, and not necessarily the arrangements themselves. A good rule of thumb is this: the more complex and dense the piece is, less room for improvisation or arrangement is usually available. To handle these denser pieces, both pianists need to be comfortable outside of the score. This way the division of duties adding to the sense of exciting ping-pong play can separate parts of a dense piece to accommodate the situation. These pianists and duos with experience know who they are (Brian and Jeff come to mind) so they don't need this discussion, which we will keep to a more fundamental level.
Most of the non-classic repertoire, particularly folk and Tin Pan Alley rags, lend themselves well to four-handed arrangements because of their inherent simplicity and need to be enhanced. Popular songs from the 1900s and 1910s are also good, but require more care in the exchange between pianists, and usually more enhancements and originality from the primary pianist. Marches, those by E.T. Paull and Sousa in particular, as well as ragtime era waltzes, have lots of possibilities. This is because many marches and waltzes (save for the Paulls) are reductions of large band or orchestral scores. Listening to the originals on old recordings will give the secondo player a better sense of what counter-lines are effectively added to these without interfering with the melody. Some early blues pieces are also good material, but again require some interchange between the players to create interest, since the repeated strains can become redundant if not infused with variety. For the stout of heart, stride pieces of James P. Johnson or Fats Waller are rife with possibilities, and these two were known to play some wild duets from time to time.
Caution is required when delving into the richer classic rags of Scott Joplin and Joseph Lamb, as well as the more complex pieces of James Scott. A skilled secondo will be able to find the hidden counter-lines and exploit them to great effect, as well as harmonic accompaniments and enhanced chords. The less skilled secondo might tend to duplicate the primary player's performance, which even in octaves can become redundant, or add where there should be minimal interference. Pieces like Lamb's American Beauty are already very full and rich for one pianist. Care needs to be taken to not clutter up such pieces, and rhythmic continuity between the two pianists becomes particularly important in this case, given the complex phrases found in the works of classic ragtime composers. Novelty rags, such as those by Zez Confrey, Roy Bargy and Billy Mayerl, are also very tricky in the typical primary/secondo arrangement. The Labeque Sisters managed a couple of very complex pieces on their rag album, namely Honky Tonk by Mayerl and Rialto Ripples by George Gershwin. Their skill based on their classical upbringing, plus a very adept arranger, all lent themselves well to these recordings, but they are still exceptionally difficult pieces. Novelty rags benefit largely from a lot of forward motion, tricky figures and crisp delivery. It takes only mild straying from tempo continuity or the wrong combination of pianos to render such pieces into cacophony, so proceed at your own risk. More can become too much more in this case.
One other consideration is to throw in a smattering of classical duets into the repertoire. This infuses even more variety into an overall performance, and if it is kept to a minimum will not come across as unfocused or out of place, particularly given that some of the roots of ragtime are in the classics that rag composers were quite often familiar with. Classical music becomes more of a challenge to improvise a second part for, and unfamiliarity of such a part might not sit well with listeners who are familiar with the core works. Therefore, among works highly recommended in this case are many existing four-hand arrangements for both one and two pianos. This includes the Mozart four-hand sonatas and fantasias, Brahams' Hungarian Dances or Liebersleider Waltzes, Dolly by Faure, the original Rhapsody in Blue by Gershwin, or even such diverse items as Beethoven Symphonies condensed to four hands. This will give some interest and breadth to a performance, but should be considered only if both pianists are comfortable enough with these genres to tackle them.
Playing successfully is one thing, and hopefully the information given to this point will assist in that. However, presentation is also something to consider when performing live. An evening of piano duets, while as exhilarating as it may sound in principle, can actually wear on some listeners after a time given the amount of information they are exposed to. Therefore, some formatting of the show as well as the matrix of tunes needs to be planned to avoid these issues. Provided here is one possible format, used by The All American Ragtime Boys, and which is similar in some regards to most successful one or two-piano presentations the author has attended or participated in.
George Burns noted on several occasions that you open with great tune and close with a big number. "You do that and the middle will hardly matter to them. Take it Maury." While not quite that simple, he has a point. Start with one of the alpha-list numbers to get the audience excited about what is to come. HOWEVER, if you use up your best stuff at the beginning, or start very big, you have nowhere to go. We use a fast paced piece with some variety to it, introduce ourselves with some clever banter, follow it with something similar but at a different tempo, then usually a classic rag, one or two more obscure rags, then perhaps a familiar Tin Pan Alley rag. All of this is interspersed with some brief dialog about the tunes, or the eras, or an anecdote related to the topic. From that point, one or the other does perhaps ten to fifteen minutes, followed by an intermission (try to keep that to fifteen minutes if possible). Open the second half with a solid or even humorous piece (we use Dueling Pianos sometimes), perhaps another or perhaps not, then the second player does his solo bit. The audience has now been exposed to a good variety of styles both collective and individual, so from this point it's tutti all the way. For the ending stretch, start with a mid-range number and build it up over the next two or three. Then you can pause to do one more slow piece. Finally, close it out with your number one alpha arrangement. After that is the little game where you both run to touch the wall and see if you can get back on stage before the applause stops. If you do, have your encore ready, and know it needs to be different but equal to the previous one. For example, the AARB might use Beer Barrel Polka or Lion Tamer Rag or Tiger Rag as their penultimate finale, then return with The Stars and Stripes Forever. Yes, it's a formula. Yes, it works well, so why break it. MGM had success using similar formulas in their musicals for some 30 years, and who remembers the Fox or Paramount musicals?
Dialog during performances is an individual preference, and what will work for one team may fall flat with another. It should be based on the intent of the program (educational, entertainment, focused on one genre, a combination) as well as the collective personalities of each player. In some cases this may mean that one is more comfortable than the other with speaking, and they would likely take the MC role for the group. This has worked well for magicians Penn and Teller for many years, as Teller has said about as much as Harpo Marx ever did during that time. Try to avoid the recital tone if you can, which more or less sounds like: "Now I will play The Gladiolus Rag by Scott Joplin." They know that. By the same token, six minutes on the composer's life, details about what makes the composition work the way it does, or even an unrelated story from the ragtime era can slow the pace of the show to a crawl. Keep it simple. What about this rag captures you or makes it interesting? Is it one of your favorite solos or duets? How did you discover it? Give the piece character before it even starts.
If both are comfortable with speaking, and understand the difficultly of effective comic delivery, some banter can certainly work in that regard. Unless you are Second City or SNL graduates, improvisation can sometimes lead to dead ends, so as Max Morath has told me, "Every ad-lib should be scripted." For the AARB this means even more witty contrast. Marty Mincer tends to tell down-home farm stories punctuated by absolutely inane groaners of punch lines, which allows Bill to react to them with some big city type of retort. Dan Grinstead and Glenn Jenks talk about the pieces as well as the joy of performing duets, and they have fun. Marty Eggers and Virginia Tichenor, along with Trebor at times, give many humorous takes on not only performing together but on how they present the tunes as well. Two Pianos Alive have their own Canadian way of bringing home the back bacon and spreading humor to the audience. Many of us also infuse a bit of choreography, which can be as simple as trading licks or even chords, or as complex as switching instruments (which Mr. Eggers does to great effect on one of their numbers). For one piano duets, there are many comic possibilities with crossed hands, Chinese fire drills, and simply mixing it up. But even after considering all of these, remember that the music and how it is performed is the point of the show, so such interstitials should be used to enhance the performance rather than detract from it. This will often mean adjustments from show to show until you know what works, but if you can have twice as much as you need then you can pick and choose, making each show different.
Finally, the visual and aesthetic aspects of the show can be as simple or complex as you see fit. In some cases, projected images of sheet music covers, composers, ragtime era scenes, or even lyrics can enhance with detracting. For times when the focus is on the music, a generic central slide or even a blank dark slide is appropriate. Sing-alongs work better with lyrics as well, but are hard to pull off with two pianos, so the need for audience participation should be governed by the type of audience (i.e. concert stage vs. senior center). In many cases you will have little choice in terms of the instruments, but as long as the pianists can face each other it should look good on stage. If two uprights are all that is available, arranging them at a 100-degree angle or so allows some visual contact with alienating the audience. A one piano presentation with a grand should usually follow the standard convention of the right side towards the audience. This is trickier with an upright piano, as the front of the piano needs to be angled a bit for audience viewing of the keys. In this instance, placement off center towards stage left will help minimize the number of people viewing your backs.
Another area that will be one of collective taste is wardrobe. The first decision is whether it will be period or contemporary, and both performers should stick to that convention. For male/female duos the only real issue should be color coordination (i.e. brown suits and red flapper dresses won't provide the best mix when you are standing together). For same gender duos, some coordination of outfit types will make for better visual presentation. For example, both men will come across better if wearing either straight or bow ties, with or without vests, and with similar colored pants. Shirts are less of an issue, but shades should be similar, even if one is striped. The styles don't need to match on any of these, however the impression of continuity provides less distraction for the audience, and they can focus on the contrasts in the music instead. Again, this is a matter of personal taste, but collective comments on the topic and experience with it indicates that it is one that should be considered in any case.
Have fun with this. If you can find a duet partner (and in some cases a life partner) that shares your joy in this music in a material way, it can only enhance what you do, so relish it. There are so few successful ragtime duets around, much less those performing in other genres as well, except those formed for special occasions. If it works well, you will know quickly. Ragtime audiences don't often keep their opinions bottled up, and they will seek you out to tell you what they think. If you approach your performances with a sense of fun and joy, you will be thinking the same thing - "How great is this?"
In the immortal words of the Musical Sneaker Guys [dated, but still funny],
For those of you who are still somewhat intimidated by the prospect of creating secondo arrangements, take heart. I am working on series of book of secondo arrangements that will dovetail with the Dover series of ragtime books, covering Classic rags to Tin Pan Alley hits. Volume One will cover some of the Joplin pieces in Classic Piano Rags. These will be usable either as written or as templates for whatever direction you may want to go, and will be similar to, but not quite duplicates of what I typically play with other pianists. Keep watching this space or the What's New Page