I love to play duets with my students.
A discussion thread earlier this week, Should Teacher Play During Lesson? has me thinking about the subject. I do believe strongly in the power of playing together, and in the occasional demonstration, when talking is not getting the point across.
Some of the most cleverly composed yet playable violin duets on the planet are the 44 Duets by Béla Bartók. A pair of sisters, Angela and Jennifer Chun, recently released a recording of the duets, downloadable on iTunes or on Amazon.
These duets – short little works of genius – are featured prominently in The Doflein Method, a five-volume set of books that I highly recommend for violin students (and teachers), particularly Book 3, which helps greatly in solidifying second, third and half positions.
In fact, Bartók wrote these duets specifically at the request of Erich Doflein, who wanted to include examples of then-contemporary composers in his books, which were first published in the early 1930s. One of my colleagues from Europe told me that the duets, which are usually sequenced from easy to difficult, were actually written in the reverse: Bartók kept submitting his duets to Doflein, who would pronounce them too difficult for the beginner, "Easier!" he kept saying, until he had what he needed. Nonetheless, most of them appear in Books 1 and 2.
Doflein went to the trouble of commissioning duets from living composers because he wished to combine technical study with musical and stylistic study. Erich and Elma Doflein express this intention beautifully in their introduction to the books: "This is training, but not as on the athletic field – it is rather a journey through many lands of music, and the music of many lands....The music of our own time was also to be represented. Distinguished composers declared their readiness to cooperate and to provide examples of their art for the single stages of the course. We owe to Béla Bartók, Paul Hindemith, Carl Orff, Matyas Seiber and other composers many pieces and studies which form an important component part..."
The Dofleins had some seriously talented collaborators, here!
These pieces are written by master composers, written specifically for two violins, not arranged from some other instrumentation. They stand whole, tiny little masterpieces to train the student. The Dofleins interspersed these pieces with music written by Mozart, by Baroque composers – even a few non-metered chants.
I delight in a student's first encounter with a Bartók or Hindemith duet, and the opportunity that it affords me to speak about the period of time and its music. Very often the piece sounds very "normal" and innocuous when the student is learning his or her part over the course of the week -- but add the second voice at the lesson, and it's a whole new story. "It sounds different, doesn't it? A little dark, maybe a little depressed," is how the conversation often goes. I like to hear their ideas about it. I explain to them that these pieces were written during an actual Depression, between two World Wars, when music took this turn for a while to the atonal. You can argue with me here, that maybe I should talk about Bartok's interest in folk music. But what tends to strike the student is the strange tonality and asymmetrical rhythms, which they hear neither in traditional classical music, nor in the music that they get from Lady Gaga and iTunes.
That said, I do wish there were a modern-day Erich Doflein to leverage the efforts of some of the great composers of today – the 21st century – to write something to train young fingers, ears and minds, something a young violinist can play in the company of his or her teacher.
I'm not a composer, but as a writer, I do know that the most difficult piece to write is the short one – to put a whole world of an idea through a prism and make it understandable to the newcomer, the youngster, the student. Who would like to write the short, modern violin duets for beginners? Send them to me, I'll put them in order and make the book.
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