Many guitarists roll their eyes at the prospect of another semester of Guitar Ensemble—a requirement in most academic music programs. Granted, a large numbers of under-rehearsed guitarists trying to time their attacks (more often than not resulting in an annoying “slapback” effect) can be a dreadful thing to experience, but in retrospect what I have learned from six years of playing in ensemble has been more than worth having to endure its worst moments.
It’s a Privilege, Really
While many full-time students would rather practice their solo rep rather than reading through a 24 guitar version of a Catalan folk song, large ensembles offer an invaluable opportunity for music-making to community members, adult learners, and other guitar enthusiasts. For many amateur musicians, participating in an ensemble is the easiest and safest way to get on stage, allowing them to gain in confidence and gear up to their own solo presentations. The regimen of rehearsals and scheduled performances can also be a boon for those who had to place the guitar on the back-burner as other priorities took over, offering both structure and an incentive to keep the chops up.
Barring previous experience from playing in an orchestra or marching band, the average classical guitarist is often clueless as to how to behave in a professional musical ensemble. A well-disciplined guitar ensemble director should enforce a few simple rules that will come in handy throughout the students’ professional career—whether they end up playing “in the pit” for a musical, or are called up at the last minute to read the mandolin part on a contemporary piece.
First and most importantly, when playing in an ensemble you should show up at the first rehearsal with your part fingered, learned, and all page turns worked out. This is especially important for guitarist given that, apart from a few exceptions, we tend to be pretty crappy readers. In a professional solution, not having your part ready at a first rehearsal would likely result in getting fired on the spot and never called back again—so the academic environment, when managed in a professional manner, can serve as a “safe” training ground to get into this essential habit. Other useful things to learn: always bring a pencil, be silent (both verbally and in terms of noodling on your instrument) when the conductor speaks, be on time, and be in tune.
Preparing for Bigger Things to Come
At the opposite end from the community player spectrum, playing in a conducted ensemble can benefit those with virtuoso aspirations. Weekly rehearsal leading to a public performance will give plenty of opportunities to learn how to follow a conductor’s patterns, cues, and expressive gestures. One idiosyncratic benefit of the guitar ensemble repertoire is that much of the more modern pieces feature mixed and odd meters, which are much easier to learn under the guidance of a conductor. All of these benefits are sure to add up and pay off if and when you will be asked to perform as a soloist with an orchestra, or as part of a professional contemporary ensemble—thus gaining access to some of the most exciting and rewarding music in our repertoire.
Aside from these utilitarian considerations, being part of a guitar ensemble can be a rewarding experience in of itself. As with everything worth doing in life, ensemble practice is worth doing well—if you take it seriously and professionally, you may find you’re enjoying your time in the plucking orchestra after all.