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What I Learned in Guitar Ensemble

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.

Professionalism

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.

3 Responses leave one →
  1. 2012 May 22
    Gary Mollenkopf permalink

    Speaking as a retired instrumental music teacher, I totally agree with your comments about the benefits of performing in an instrumental ensemble. (After many years of teaching and conducting concert bands, I decided that my school–and school district–really needed a guitar program. Implementing that program was my last big project during the three years prior to my retirement.) In addition your observations above, I would like to add that the students benefitted not only from “conducted” playing but also from “un-conducted” playing. Part of their skill development included my starting them on piece and then leaving them to their own devices. I cannot stress how much this technique improved their listening and performing skills! The class ultimately became independent on some pieces and didn’t even need me to start them. Another benefit of having an ensemble is being able to break the large group into smaller ensembles in which each student was the only player on his/her part. Small ensemble performance pushed students to master their parts and ultimately increased their self-confidence. The benefits of an ensemble experience are obvious even for that player who wants to be a rock star!

  2. 2012 May 28
    Jessica Zisa permalink

    This is a wonderful subject to address since the idea of an academic requirement can often seem unnecessarily tedious. But as you point out, the guitar ensemble is actually a vital component of a student’s professional development. I agree that it can be a “‘safe’ training ground” to grow solid professional habits as a performer. I believe the guitar ensemble setting provides a great opportunity to develop one’s technique and fingering proficiency. I also like that you addressed listening as an important habit to build in rehearsals. How important would you say the ability to listen is for a professional performer and how does this habit aid the soloist?

    • 2012 May 28

      Hi Jessica,

      Great question!

      I believe listening to be a fundamental musical skill. In an ensemble, it’s vital—a good ensemble player needs to blend his/r tone to that of the entire ensemble, learning to phrase together with other players, to match dynamics, etc…all of those things rely on keen ears and a deep awareness of one’s place in the soundscape at any given time.

      I think those listening skills can be translated to a solo situation as well. There is a certain “objectivity” to really focused, deep listening that can really benefit the practicing musician, in a way similar to listening back to a recorded practice session. Similarly, learning to *really* listen to one’s sound in the hall can serve a recitalist to fine-tune his/r sound and projection to the situation. Small and large ensembles can definitely serve as a useful training grounds to develop and perfect these critical skills.

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