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Musicians lead the lives of lighthouse keepers for much of the time, putting in the hours working out thorny technical problems so that performing looks (and maybe is, with enough work) easy. As Malcolm Gladwell and other authors say, it takes 10,000 hours of deep (or deliberate) practice to develop very high levels of skill on anything. That’s a long time in the lighthouse, and it ain’t for sissies, as the saying goes. Musicians need the grit and gumption of a Navy SEAL to spend hour after hour grinding away at problems, spending most of their time on things they can’t do very well or possibly at all. The very length and difficulty of the practice gauntlet is a great weeder-outer of wanna-be’s; otherwise everyone could be a virtuoso without ado.

But still… Aren’t there ways to get the same technical vitamins and make the hours a little shorter and even more enjoyable? Well, there’s no way around some of it, but I submit that there are many skills that could be studied exactly in this way by simply doing them with a partner. It’s easier to do physical exercise with a friend or in an exercise class with others. And it’s also both expeditious and enjoyable to attack certain problems à due. Let’s list and look:

Sight reading/Style. We should all be doing some sight reading every day. It should be easy and even fun to do this on our own, but somehow it’s hard to get to it as much as we should. The antidote to this inertia is to arrange some regular (or even irregular) times with other horn players to play duets, even if it’s only a short time. Duets invariably come in books/collections, and it’s a good idea to start amassing a collection of duets early on (a mentor of mine always said: “If you have [sheet] music, you can play”). There are all kinds of duets available, in many styles and levels of difficulty. Examples:

•Jazzy/swing: Bipperies (L.E. Shaw) – 2 vol.

•Baroque: Six Canonic Sonatas – Telemann (Shaw)

•Classical: Mozart – 12 Duets; Nicolai – Duets (6 Vol.); Duvernoy – 20 Duets

•Modern: Barboteu – 4 Duos; Heiden: 5 Canons

•Quirky: Wilder: 22 Duets

•Odd Meter: Gates – Odd Meter Duets, Del Borgo – Contemporary Rhythm & Meter Duets

•Technique: Amsden – Celebrated Practice Duets

•Folk: Agrell – Fiddle Tunes for 2 Horns [with optional parts for guitar and bass]

There are many, many more books of duets available. Start collecting – and using – them now! [See also an earlier post, “The Alchemy of Synergy I

Transposition. Let’s face it 1) it’s not much fun to work on your transposition alone and 2) we all need to be able to transpose fluently from every other “horn” [key]. Duets are the answer. Start with some early C major natural horn looking material (I like the Kling 30 Duets for this). The Duvernoy duets are a notch harder, but are also very good material. If you spend an hour or two on, say, the B natural transposition, you will be amazed at how far you get in a relatively short time. The feared tritone transposition will not seem so bad any more .

Bass Clef. It’s hard to get enough bass clef playing time in on a regular basis, but duet it and you’ll maintain and develop your low range. The best source material for this may be duet books originally written for bass clef instruments: trombone, bassoon (watch out for tenor clef…), tuba, etc. If you really want a challenge, try the Amsden collection in the bass clef version. My favorite is a decades-old book of Orlando di Lasso duets (“for voices or instruments”) where the lower part is in bass clef (later: both parts) and for lagniappe, there are no bar lines. Great stuff, very fun.

Duets keep you going when you might quit otherwise. As Stephen Nachmanovitch says:

One advantage of collaboration is that it’s much easier to learn from someone else than from yourself. And inertia, which is often a major block in solitary work, hardly exists at all here: you release each other’s energy. Learning becomes many-sided, a refreshing and vitalizing force.

What if you want to play with another instrument that is not a horn?

A.: There is less choice, but you might be able to come up with some compositions for your particular combination of interest. Or not.

If you can’t find much (or even if you can), there is the other option: make up your own, either composed or improvised.

If you improvise, you can play as long as you want with any other instrument. It’s easier than you might think. In general, all you need to do is for one person to play some kind of melody line (simple is good), while the other personal plays some kind of accompaniment. It might, but doesn’t have to be, chord (or chord progression) based. Easier: pick a technical problem, such as a melodic minor scale and jump in. Steal melodic and rhythmic ideas from each a lot. Rest now and then. Move to foreground and background and back. Vary register, articulation, dynamics, rhythms, timbre. It’s fun. It’s easy. It’s a great learning tool.

What are you waiting for?

Just duet!

[June 2012: keep an eye out for my new book: Improv Duets for Classical Musicians, GIA Publications – lots of ideas there. It’s just awaiting the editor’s touch…]