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Duelng Pianos


J. Dan

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I've been asked to put together a once a month dueling pianos act. I've never done anything like that and am not sure how comfortable I'd be - I'm more of a "learn the keyboard parts" guy, than a "whip out a piano version" guy...besides the fact that you gotta sing them all as well.

 

Has anyone done this? Is there a trick to it? Do you actually just try to learn all the songs people might request ahead of time? Do you split them with the other guy? Last time I saw this sort of thing, they weren't really dueling. I'm not really sure where to start.

Dan

 

Acoustic/Electric stringed instruments ranging from 4 to 230 strings, hammered, picked, fingered, slapped, and plucked. Analog and Digital Electronic instruments, reeds, and throat/mouth.

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Dan,

 

Never played one, but seen quite a few. What they all seem to have in common - for majority of repertoire, it's really "one guy plays, the other guy sings". There is usually a "primary" and a "fills" assignment going on. Only on a few tunes do they turn loose a pianistically challenging "duel" kind of thing.

 

Lots of comedy (subtle and not-so) introduced. A few numbers designed for pyrotechnic skill (which typically breaks down to pre-assigned division of labor a la 64th note filigree).

 

The best ones weren't the ones with obvious chops. Rather, they had a vast depth and breadth of repertoire. Standards, pop hits, oldies - impossible to stump with a request. Could pull off credible renditions of Lush Life to A Day In the Life to Bohemian Rhapsody to Tell Me Something Good without breaking a sweat.

 

That's what I've seen at least.

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Dan,

 

Never played one, but seen quite a few. What they all seem to have in common - for majority of repertoire, it's really "one guy plays, the other guy sings". There is usually a "primary" and a "fills" assignment going on. Only on a few tunes do they turn loose a pianistically challenging "duel" kind of thing.

 

Lots of comedy (subtle and not-so) introduced. A few numbers designed for pyrotechnic skill (which typically breaks down to pre-assigned division of labor a la 64th note filigree).

 

The best ones weren't the ones with obvious chops. Rather, they had a vast depth and breadth of repertoire. Standards, pop hits, oldies - impossible to stump with a request. Could pull off credible renditions of Lush Life to A Day In the Life to Bohemian Rhapsody to Tell Me Something Good without breaking a sweat.

 

That's what I've seen at least.

 

I'm assuming from this that it's mostly rehearsed - that the repertoire is just large enough that they seem to be able to just pull off any request. I wonder how one goes about picking the songs for that vast repertoire - I'm sure as requests flowin over time, it's easy to figure out, but you'd need a pretty vast repertoire just to get it off the ground.

Dan

 

Acoustic/Electric stringed instruments ranging from 4 to 230 strings, hammered, picked, fingered, slapped, and plucked. Analog and Digital Electronic instruments, reeds, and throat/mouth.

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I've wanted to do something like that since first going to Pat O'Brien's. Someone finally did that here this year so I guess I've missed the boat locally.

 

Pianist Envy is pretty good. Rev Billy Wirzt and Victor Wainwright.

 

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I've been sometimes toying with the idea of a a dueling keyboard trio with the keyboard players switching responsibilities between piano and non-piano keyboard sounds/arrangements and a singer between... Just something different.
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I'm assuming from this that it's mostly rehearsed - that the repertoire is just large enough that they seem to be able to just pull off any request. I wonder how one goes about picking the songs for that vast repertoire - I'm sure as requests flowin over time, it's easy to figure out, but you'd need a pretty vast repertoire just to get it off the ground.

 

The more experienced ones I've seen have 1) a lot of material under their fingers and 2) lots of books, charts, and binders. So once one of them locates the request during a set break (I presume the books are largely duplicated), the working procedure for division of labor becomes pretty intuitive and fast (you get to know what your partner can and can't do).

 

The more you do #2, the more of that quickly become #1, I would guess. And keeping a steady flow of requests coming in makes it easy to say, "Sorry, we don't have time to do all of your requests..."

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I know a lot of 70s, 80s, 90s pop - I can do piano versions of bohemian rhapsody. Lots of billy Joel, Elton John, Styx. I'm assuming you'll pull out the typical piano man, come sail away, Benny and the jets kind of stuff. I'd probably be best off partnering someone with a repertoire of standards, boogie woogie, blues. I'd imagine adding some rag would be good - I used to know some Scott Joplin when I was taking lessons as a kid.

 

I guess it all comes down to finding the right partner with some chemistry, putting together a good entertaining show, then managing the format in terms of requests and crowd interaction.

Dan

 

Acoustic/Electric stringed instruments ranging from 4 to 230 strings, hammered, picked, fingered, slapped, and plucked. Analog and Digital Electronic instruments, reeds, and throat/mouth.

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I've been approached about doing this numerous times, and considered it seriously, but never took the plunge. In most situations I've seen, one person would play and sing a tune while the other looked through the requests to decide what to play next. Once that person had decided on something, they might join in on the current tune in a (usually pretty superfluous) supporting role. Then for the next tune they'd switch roles. So really it was much less "dueling pianos" than "alternating pianos." Then there are tricks like one guy singing while the other does a beat-box thing, or bangs the piano lid to keep time.

 

The content and style can vary quite a bit. I recently talked to a guy who's doing a dueling gig at a new place in town, and he was really frustrated with it because he said "it's not so much dueling pianos as dueling comedians." A lot of places have a fully-scripted schtick, and the players are expected to simply learn and deliver it. But then there are other places where they actually seem to want to be musical, or at least as much as they can within that context.

 

I think I've seen this posted here before, but the 504 piano blog is worth checking out. It's a photo blog of actual request napkins from one of the guys playing at Pat O's. It will give you a different kind of insight as to what you're getting into.

 

Important note: If at any point you find yourself experiencing the urge to sing "You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille... You bitch! You slut! You whore!" at anything other than a gig where you're being paid specifically to do so, then get away from that world as soon as possible.

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There was a club on the Gold Coast (Australia) which featured two pianists, one pianist/drummer and one drummer. There were two keyboard rigs each with a bass keyboard. All the piano guys sang. They were able to play non-stop as a trio by swapping around thru the night, each player taking a 15 minute break every hour.

 

As for me, if there's someone eles to play piano I like to get behind the organ or pick up a guitar.

 

John

Legend Live, Leslie 251, Yamaha UX1, Yamaha CP4, Hammond SK1, Ventilator and various other bitsânâpieces.
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I've been approached about doing this numerous times, and considered it seriously, but never took the plunge.

 

Indeed. Well, I only considered it seriously for about half a second, but other than that...I agree.

 

I just came to realize it was a wild thing that people would pay bills for that kind of thing, and then decided it wasn't for me.

 

One of the few bright spots in the market for paying gigs as of the past few years. Actually, I was flattered to even be asked by regular civilians of the music-listening public, but, hey.

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There are a few dueling piano venues in town. This is a bar that does live music who wants to do a dueling piano thing the last Friday of every month. So I suppose were I to attempt it, I could make it what I want...just have people's expectations to contend with.

Dan

 

Acoustic/Electric stringed instruments ranging from 4 to 230 strings, hammered, picked, fingered, slapped, and plucked. Analog and Digital Electronic instruments, reeds, and throat/mouth.

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Dueling piano venues in our area just haven't worked out for whatever reason. There is one I saw in San Diego ("Keys" I think the bar was called?)...those guys were incredible - and made a TON of money.

They literally could play pretty much anything anyone requested. They also had a ton of dirty humor, crowd interaction, etc...

 

I was in town for an interview, and was sitting by myself watching these guys. They had a group sing-along, and I decided not to participate in the song. Damn guy saw me and took out a spotlight and shined it on me...then had to stand up and do a solo in front of everyone.

 

For the money part though - people leave a tip with each request they make. One guy requested "Friends in low places". They had already played it twice that night, so they said "for double his $5 request, they would stop playing the song".

 

So some guy comes up and gives $10. Well the original requester then went up and put $20 for them to keep playing it. This went back and forth until a guy put up $140 for them to stop playing the song. All told, I recall calculating it out and they made around $400...to NOT play a song. I was amazed.

 

I'd love to put something like that together in this area, I sadly do not have the repetoire to do it as good as those guys though.

 

So long story short - GOOD LUCK!

 

My only advice, is these days - pick up an IPAD or laptop and make sure you have internet connection. You can then usually look up any song you don't know and butcher your way through it if you have to!

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That kind of bidding, i.e., $20 to play the song, another $20 not to play it, is a staple in that dueling community. There is a fair amount of self-promotion, hucksterism, comedy, and schmaltz, in addition to whatever piano chops you need. Plus, there is a need to stay very current, in addition to having a huge stable of tunes, since youre entertaining a lot of bachelorette parties, college aged partiers, etc. I've heard repeated tales of dueling pianists with good solo piano versions of Gangham Style, Sexy and I Know It (LMFAO), Lady Gaga, Chicken Fried (country tune), etc. This is not a gig for those with particular or discriminating tastes, and saying yes to song requests gets you a lot more dough than turning your nose down at them.

 

When I was looking for interesting podcasts, I stumbled upon Piano Barbarians, which is about the life of dueling piano players (www.pianobarbarians.com). A lot of these guys have several month long gigs on cruise ships, vacation destinations, etc. The podcast is pretty interesting, bearing in mind the bar is low if you have a commute.

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During the time I was actively playing piano bars, a clubowner approached me about doing this with another piano bar player in the area. Although he said we could play prepared material at times, for the meat of the night we were supposed to take requests - and play as much of each one as we could back and forth. Since we each knew hundreds of songs by heart (and all the usual piano bar stuff) he figured it would work.

 

The other guy and I were good friends and regularly sat in on each others gigs too, but for several reasons it never happened.

 

At a minimum I would think that you would need a large repertoire, but maybe you could set this up without it.

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During the time I was actively playing piano bars, a clubowner approached me about doing this with another piano bar player in the area. Although he said we could play prepared material at times, for the meat of the night we were supposed to take requests - and play as much of each one as we could back and forth. Since we each knew hundreds of songs by heart (and all the usual piano bar stuff) he figured it would work.

 

The other guy and I were good friends and regularly sat in on each others gigs too, but for several reasons it never happened.

 

At a minimum I would think that you would need a large repertoire, but maybe you could set this up without it.

 

Having a good partner that you really click with is pretty important too. The banter back and forth between the guys I saw was probably 40% of the show. They were hilarious and played very well off each other's sarcasm and witt.

 

I've seen a lot of "not so great" dueling pianos. You gotta have all the pieces together to really put a great one together.

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Occasionally around these parts, some club owner will go visit a Howl at the Moon Cafe, or a similar place, and decide it would be great fun to have dueling pianos at his place, so they hire 2 random piano players (there are about 4 of us who gig around here anyway)and can't figure out why it dosen't work. They never get that it's more like "dueling sit down comics" and, at least the times I've seen it, the ability to play great is WAY down the list of things you need to do this gig well. When I lived in ATL back in the 80's right before I left town they opened up a Litl Ditty's in the new underground. I knew the guys doing the gig, and a couple of them weren't even piano players, but could chunk out some chords and sing "Great Balls of Fire" so it was all good....
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Occasionally around these parts, some club owner will go visit a Howl at the Moon Cafe, or a similar place, and decide it would be great fun to have dueling pianos at his place, so they hire 2 random piano players (there are about 4 of us who gig around here anyway)and can't figure out why it dosen't work. They never get that it's more like "dueling sit down comics" and, at least the times I've seen it, the ability to play great is WAY down the list of things you need to do this gig well. When I lived in ATL back in the 80's right before I left town they opened up a Litl Ditty's in the new underground. I knew the guys doing the gig, and a couple of them weren't even piano players, but could chunk out some chords and sing "Great Balls of Fire" so it was all good....

 

I'd agree breadth of song knowledge far outshines depth of playing ability! Thats for sure. You are mostly playing 3 or 4-chord songs with octaves in the bass and melody/chords in the right hand (from experience of the ones I've seen). AND, you have a 2nd guy to help you out!

 

I'd definitely put "Charisma" and "Comedic Ability" way above playing ability. You really need to put together a "schtick".

 

The big one at the main venue I saw always did a quick "You took a long time to leave me Lucille...(at which point the audience joined in saying) - you bitch, you slut, you whore"

 

Or something dumb like singing happy bday - Happy bday to you, happy bday to you, do your nipples touch your shoe, happy bday to you...for a girl sitting on the piano.

 

Comedy, for me, really can make or break the act.

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