Teaching the "Heart and Soul" Duet in Traditional Piano Lessons
“Heart and Soul” by Hoagy Carmichael (published in 1938) is one of those songs that can sound totally wonderful – heartful and soulful – or it can make a music teacher cringe. Millions of children who will never take music lessons may learn to play it as a duet on the piano, sometimes rather badly, and it is ubiquitous to the extent that anyone who knows one part can usually find another person who can play the other part no matter where they go.
Some of the traits that make it so cringe-worthy also can make it a wonderful teaching tool. Important musical principles can be taught in the course of teaching the duet, specifically related to the notes as they are taught initially, and numerous features of the song can lay groundwork for future learning. In addition, since children often play it with friends, siblings, and even the newest of acquaintances, it adds a wonderful social element that is sometimes lacking for piano students. When they play the song, not only do we see two children or young people playing a duet – we see also that they are playing it for no other reason than simply to have fun! It is not a case of one friend showing off for another (although I have no problem with that); it is a shared music-making opportunity.
When should this be taught? Some parts of it can be taught to students of practically any age. Teachers who teach pre-kindergarten students may find that it is beyond this age group (I do not teach students this young myself), but even the youngest elementary age students can learn some parts of it. I often will choose to teach it when I am aware that a student may be experiencing some kind of lull in their interest in lessons. Or, if they are struggling with the music-reading aspect of the lessons, learning something by the rote method can give them a new way of learning music, which in turn may boost their confidence and enjoyment. There is such a wealth of material that can be taught with this duet, it could actually become boring once some of the basics are mastered. So it would be reasonable to teach some parts of the material included here each year, returning to it to add to what was taught the previous year and checking to see if the student has learned anything new about it on their own during the interval. It could also make a nice part of the curriculum for the month of February, since it is pretty hard to escape a Valentine’s Day emphasis.
Secondo for RH Starting Position
First the Secondo
When I teach “Heart and Soul,” I never assume that the student already knows it. But if I learn that they do, I simply teach the other part of the duet that they do not yet know or some of the variations that are so readily available in playing it. Occasionally it is necessary to correct something they have learned in an odd variation; but this usually happens more often with the duet “Chopsticks” than with “Heart and Soul.”
For many students, it is easiest to learn the Secondo part, the bass, first, because of the way the hands match almost symmetrically and because of the constant and frequent repetition of the chord progression. I show how to place the left thumb on a C (the white key immediately left of the pair of black keys). Then, the left hand plays a slow pattern of notes, one at a time: C (thumb), skip a note, A (third finger), skip a note, F (fifth finger), then up one note to G (fourth finger). In the future, after the student knows this part very well and comfortably, I may teach them that the original harmony called for a low D, instead of F. But at this stage, that is not necessary and in my opinion not desirable.
After the left hand has practiced this pattern several times and is becoming somewhat confident, it’s time for the right hand thumb to find its place on a matching C one octave higher than the left. Now the right hand will have its own 1-3-5 pattern (one note at a time, low to middle to high), but this time it will move to a different starting note after each pattern. And – how cool – the new starting note is the same as the note played by the left hand. The difference for the two hands is that the left hand will stay stationary with the thumb on C and the right hand will begin with thumb on C, but then move the thumb to a new note for each pattern. So, the right hand notes will be, in this order, one at a time: C-E-G, A-C-E, F-A-C, G-B-D. Then the entire sequence will be repeated.
The two hands work together in this way: left (one note), right (three notes), left (one), right (three), left (one), right (three) , left (one), right (three). Left-right-right-right, Left-right-right-right, Left-right-right-right, Left-right-right-right.
Left – C, Right - C-E-G, Left – A, Right - A-C-E,
Left – F, Right - F-A-C, Left – G, Right - G-B-D
Depending on the skill and quickness of the student, I may teach the rhythm as straight, even eighth notes throughout, or I may teach the more customary swing rhythm (long-short-long-short, etc.) which gives a triplet feel. Other variations that I may teach early, depending on the needs and ability of the student are: a blocked RH chord following a single LH note (or octave, when the student is ready), a pair of blocked RH chords following a pair of LH single notes, all in swing rhythm.
The trickiest part of teaching this song by rote is creating a suitable ending. Most of the time, the children who learn this on their own do not learn the bridge of the song at all, but simply repeat the main theme twice (or more times) and then just stop. For the bass, the Secondo part, that usually means two times through their pattern as an introduction, then eight times through the full pattern with the Primo player. At the end of these eight repetitions, the Secondo can play an ending made up of the C pattern, then the F pattern, then the C pattern once again plus one final C note.
G Chord, Second Inversion, for Future Fun
More for the Future
For future lessons, the bass part lends itself to demonstrating and explaining these wonderful musical principles:
Blocked vs. broken chords
Straight vs. swing rhythm
Chords in root position vs. inversions (not taught yet, but the bass can be played with chord inversions in the future)
I – vi – IV – V chord progression
In the future, change this to the chord progression I – vi – ii – V
Walk-down and walk-up patterns for the left hand
Various patterns for playing the notes of a chord (for RH):
1 – 3+5; 1-3-5-3-5; 1-3-5-3-1; 1 – 3+5 – 1
Filling in passing tones between the chords tones (RH)
The RH notes for playing the chords in their inverted form, in a close position, could be (a sampling of possibilities is shown):
C E G / C E A / C F A / D G B or C E G / C E A / D F A / D G B
G C E / A C E / A C F / B D G or G C E / A C E / A D F / B D G
E G C / E A C / F A C / G B D or E G C / E A C / F A D / G B D
It is also possible and fun to change the position of the chords with each repetition of the chord progression. So, at the end of any of these patterns above, the RH can move into position for a different pattern. Of course, the chord inversions can be mixed up in many different ways, and discovering these ways can be another source of enjoyment for the student.
Next Comes the Primo Part
The Primo part, the melody, has its own type of pattern, one that is related more to the scale than to chords – and that’s good, too, because it helps to demonstrate the way both scales and chords are used in various ways in music. It may be easiest to teach the melody for one hand only, either one. Later the student can learn to play the same notes with the other hand; still later both hands can play at the same time, playing the melody in octaves.
The student again begins on C, as does the Secondo part, but the Primo student uses their third finger on C. Play C three times, pause for a beat and a half, then C a fourth time followed by the two notes down to the left (in sequence), and then back up to C and one beyond to the right (C – C – C – – – C – B – A – B – C – D ) and then still one more to the right. That brings the last finger (either hand) to E. E is played three times, changing fingers in the process to bring the third finger to the E. The same fingering pattern is used here as on C: three of the first note, pause, one more of the same, then walk two notes down to the left and walk back up to the starting note, plus one beyond to the right (E – E – E – – – E – D – C – D – E – F). These notes so far can be taught either with swing rhythm (preferred) or with a straight rhythm (first two notes slightly long, like quarter notes; third note longer, like a half note; eighth rest, then other notes in the pattern as eighth notes, with the last one followed by an eighth rest or tied to an eighth note).
Now the note (pitch) pattern changes. Now the next higher note (G) is played (half note), then back to C (also a half note), eighth rest, then three eighth notes and three quarter notes, starting with the one beyond the previous highest note (that is, A), and walking down note by note to get back to C. Since there are more notes in this pattern than fingers, the student can now have the fun possibility of crossing third finger over thumb (D to C for RH) or playing thumb under 3 (F to E for LH). The exact notes for this section of the Primo are:
G (half note) C (half note, eighth rest) A – G – F – E – D – C.
At this point, there’s a certain amount of variety in the next section, the fill-in between repetitions of the principle theme. Sometimes it is played as a descending walk-down pattern (with at least two variations):
C B A G F E D—G—then back to the original theme;
C B A G F F# G (B)—then back to the original theme .
It’s also possible to teach the fill-in more closely like the way it was originally written, as C-- D E F G- F E D.
In any case, when it is time to end the song, the Primo will usually play simply a C, while the Secondo plays the changing chords as described above.
In all of these variations, the rhythm can be either straight or (preferably) swing rhythm, depending on the student’s ability.
More Resources for Expanding Your Lessons
You can find more popular songs to teach by rote or in lead sheet or chord sheet format in this fantastic selection of fakebooks available from Sheet Music Plus.
More Things to Learn from Primo
For the Primo player, the musical principles to be learned may be a bit more limited than for the Secondo player. Among other possibilities, the teacher can point out:
Identical rhythmic patterns in different locations
Matching patterns of interval movement, starting in different locations
Concept of a Home Tone – moving away from it and back
Scale movement, step-wise, descending and ascending
Chord tones and passing tones
To extend the lesson, the student could be asked to transpose the pattern to a different key, that is, to begin on a different tonic.
For the very advanced thinking student (not necessarily at an advanced level in their playing skills), an exciting challenge would be to play the Primo part in both hands, an octave apart, and to fill in the chord tones between the two melody notes to match the harmony of the Secondo part.
Variations... Way Beyond Lesson One... Wish I Could Claim Credit
Putting It All Together
Of course, the real fun is in putting the Primo and Secondo parts together, helping the student learn to play and count/feel the rhythm while simultaneously listening to the other duet part and hearing its rhythm and hearing the way the two parts fit together - meshing musically, we hope. The student will benefit from playing this first with the teacher to the point where they know it well enough to help out a friend who may have learned it from another friend or from a big sister or brother. And if the student has learned to play both parts (as we would hope), it becomes much easier to hear the way the parts belong together and also to help out the friend who is playing a different part or simply to make sure the two parts stay together.
Additional mileage can be gotten by teaching a student the bridge to “Heart and Soul” (both Primo and Secondo parts) and by teaching the melody “Blue Moon” (by Rodgers and Hart, 1934) which can be played as a duet with the Secondo part from “Heart and Soul,” perhaps with slight changes to the latter.
And who knows, perhaps when music teachers help their students to enjoy playing the "Heart and Soul" duet in the most musical way possible, the level of social duet-playing around the world may rise noticeably.