Sometimes when my students come to lessons unprepared, or if they have just finished a competition and are waiting on new music to come in, I will pull out a duet book and we will read duets. It reminds me of all the fun times I have had playing duets with friends. Sometimes it may feel like you are just playing around and you get no benefit from playing duets. However, something does not have to be unpleasant to be beneficial. This is especially true of playing duets with a friend!
Fun. I love being able to read new music with a partner. I love how the music can sound funny sometimes and you just stop in the middle of the music and start laughing. I love how playing duets is just fun, and there is no pressure to perform. It reminds me of why I fell in love with music in the first place.
Tempo. Playing with another person, or playing in an ensemble requires you to be able to keep time with another person. Playing in a small group forces you to do it without the aid of a conductor. You must learn to keep tempo from within. When you play by yourself without a metronome, there is the possibility that you will slow down or speed up imperceptibly. When you play with someone else, you need to keep the same tempo or the music will fall apart. Also, playing with a live person helps you to learn how to make adjustments with what is going on in the moment. Music is alive! Playing with a metronome is so important to learn how to keep a steady tempo, but sometimes music has ebbs and flows and you can learn how to stay in time with another person, ebbs and flows included, by playing duets.
Intonation. You might be able to play 40 cents sharp by yourself and no one would know the difference unless you weren't in tune with yourself. In order for the music to sound beautiful, you need to play in tune with your partner. In large ensembles, it is very difficult to try to match 65 other players as closely as you can with just one other player. It's difficult to hear your own part sometimes. You know how when you are in rehearsal and the conductor asks to hear just your section, and all of a sudden, you can play in tune much better? It's because the extraneous noise was removed. When playing with just one other person, you have an opportunity to focus matching pitch without tons of other sounds going on.
Tone and balance. Not only do you need to match pitch, but you need to match tone. Having only one other person to listen to makes it much easier to sound like one flute. One person does not need to be louder than the other unless the dynamics call for it. The audience shouldn't be able to perceive one instrument more loudly than the other!
Sight reading. The only way to get better at sight reading is to read new music! The way to do it faster is to read with other musicians who are better sight readers than you! Have you ever noticed that you learn to run better and faster when you do it with other people? It's the same with music. You learn to sight read better with other musicians. It's not really feasible to practice sight reading as much as you'd like with an entire orchestra of people, but it is feasible to grab a friend and read duets together.
Money. What? Yes. Money. If you can form a chamber ensemble, which a duo counts as a chamber group, you have the opportunity to be hired by anyone who is looking for musicians. Most people who hire musicians to play at dinner parties, weddings or other events are looking for a small group of musicians rather than just one. Variety is the spice of life!
Do you feel you have benefited from playing duets? In what ways do you feel you have benefited from playing duets? What other benefits would you add to this list?