From its origins in old vaudeville and cabaret, dueling pianos is fast moving away from niche, ‘alternative’, dive-bar-esque shows into more mainstream live musical entertainment. In the 21st century, dueling pianos gives people a brief respite from the same old tired rockeoke performances and more towards putting on a party for all types of music fans to enjoy.
Here are some tips for the beginning dueling pianist, and a gentle reminder from some veterans as well:
Have a HUGE Musical Repertoire
Dueling pianists are expected to be able to play many songs on request, and by “any” we mean it: you’ll be asked to play Top 40 songs, obscure pop songs, piano-arranged rock ballads, and maybe even some hip-hop and rap. And all of that is going to be on top of all the jazz and ragtime standards you’ll have to memorize by heart.
But that’s part-and-parcel of being a musician, so it’s not really something you should be worried about because, chances are, you can play these songs from memory alone, or after listening to a couple of bars of the song. Remember, though: your partner can save you if you forget the next note, just don’t make it too difficult for them.
Here’s a secret, though: you don’t actually have to memorize all the songs. When you start playing dueling pianos, you’ll find out very quickly that sticking to the sheet isn’t the most exciting thing to do, and that improvisation is going to save your butt 9 times out of 10. Speaking of improv…
Practice Your Licks and Runs Religiously
The origins of dueling pianos go all the way back to ragtime, that jagged, jaunty style of music that featured syncopated melodic lines, off-beat rhythms, and a darn good time. The early dueling pianists weren’t too concerned about what’s hot in the charts of the 1900’s, but rather, they were all about playing complex licks and catchy runs just to see if they can catch their competitor sleeping.
Of course, we’ve moved away from the ‘duel’ aspect of duel pianos, and the whole performance is now more focused on entertainment rather than going head-to-head. But that quality of bringing fire licks and blazing runs is going to help you improve your way through songs that you’re not 100% familiar with.
Spend some time brushing up on your jazz piano improvisation skills and you’ll be able to skat your way out of an unfamiliar song after the first few bars. After all, you only need maybe the first couple of verses or the chorus of a pop song before you can transition to a lick and then to a new song. In fact, the firing order of a Chevy 350 is probably more complicated than a simple jazz lick (if you do it right), so invest some time exercising that. Again, it’s not exactly about recreating whole songs from start to end, but rather, about creating an upbeat energy in the room. Which brings us to our last point…
Don’t Forget to Have Fun!
Dueling pianos is all about interacting with the crowd through music, so don’t beat yourself up if you can’t remember the next bar or if you start making up a melody on the spot. Remember: if you’re having fun, and you can infect the crowd with that sense of joy, then that’s a job well done.