Summer School – 5

There are several items that are worthy of note, but which span and serve as a general background to the week’s activity. I will list them here.

The most notable is the fact that most of the people attending the summer school, even if it is their first time, already know each other from the message boards on the CGC website. In addition to the various learning activities provided, there is a very active online community. I have not seen an online group with a spirit like this since the mid-1990’s. There are no trolls, and there has never been a flame war. Members are adults, respectful and interested in using the forum to share with others who are going through the same challenges. The result is that when people “met” for the first time, they were meeting with people they may have known for years.

The formal activity of every day ended with a concert. Each of the teachers performed on the small stage of the Rose theatre. While everything was of interest, these were a special delight. The performers seemed to connect with the audience on a level that was more than what happens when playing for strangers. Students got to share this experience as there were two open mic nights, where students were able to perform in a concert setting. The audience for these was very enthusiastic, an enthusiasm that came from the shared nature of the experience.

Meals were shared in the student cafeteria, so at any meal you would probably find yourself sitting next to someone new, whether that person was in your small ensemble, someone who had been having an online conversation with you, or someone you hadn’t had a chance to chat with since last year. Conversations either started or ended with guitar topics (although there was always an undercurrent of tales from home, travel or other things that kept everyone from becoming too intensely guitar-focused).

After the full day’s activities, and after the evening concert, one of the common rooms in the dorm became the center of an evening get together with wine, beer and assorted snacks. Most of the students and teachers would stop at some point in the evening. The highlights of these gatherings included a rolling game of eight ball, an impromptu concert by Berta Rojas and Nicoletta Tedesco, and a performance by a bluegrass band made up of Simon, Devin and Jacques, with a guest appearance by Caroline Eckman, who made the trip to Boston just to sing with them.

I think I have captured the essence of the summer school here. If anything further bubble up, I reserve the right to add to this.

Summer School -4

Playing in the band – Part 2: The orchestra

If your image of a classical guitar player is of someone sitting alone in a room, guitar in hand, practicing scales or working on repertoire, then that image must crack a little bit when placed against the small ensembles. It will probably shatter when you put that guitarist on stage with 60 other guitarists.  Yet, that is exactly what we did every afternoon as our last group exercise of the day.

Our guitar orchestra was arranged on the stage in four general groups, corresponding roughly to the four sections of a traditional orchestra. The first challenge was simply getting seated on the stage. Many of the guitarists were self-contained, that is, they used guitar supports that allowed them to sit with their feet flat on the floor. An equal number, however, used the traditional footrest. This resulted in a lot of shuffling, adjusting chairs and getting ready to play. Tuning was an interesting exercise as we moved thru the strings. Using this method, a single guitar our of tune would project over the other 59. I found this fascinating.

We were assigned two pieces. The first was Marcello’s Oboe Concerto. This was a special and exciting project being done by the orchestra director, Janet Agostino. She is working on a doctorate in musical transcription and part of her research consists of doing actual transcriptions. The Marcello piece was originally written for orchestra and oboe but was now to be performed by guitar orchestra and cello. This was the only piece that was sent to everyone prior to arriving at Endicott.

One of the more interesting aspects of this was practicing one part of what would become the soundscape of the orchestra. The first “aha” came when we practiced our parts together and shared that moment when everyone realizes that everyone is playing the same piece and it sounds like music. The second “aha” was the first time we were joined on stage by Jacques Lee Wood and heard the cello part that we were supporting. It was pure magic.

We practiced the piece for five days, tightening the sound, working on dynamics, and learning how to play in a group that large, which for amateur players like myself, included learning how to keep track of several measures of rests.

The other piece was a much more playful piece called “Viva Jujuey” arranged by the Australian guitar composer Richard Charlton. This contains many fun parts, including one section that listeners will recognize as Paul Simon’s “I’d rather be a hammer than a nail.” The piece also included percussion, which might cause the reader to ask, “how did you get percussion?”

In one section of the piece Guitar 2’s were asked to rap on the back of their guitars for the percussive effect. At another point, Raffaele Agostino used a guitar case to bang out the bass drum part. It was impossible not to smile at the end of this.

The orchestra served as one of the highlights of the week for many reasons. Not the least of which was that our recording of the Marcello piece will now become part of Janet’s doctoral portfolio.

Next (and last), a potpourri of brief items that have not made it into any of these posts.

Summer School – 3

Playing in the band – part 1

Prior to attending summer school last year, I had no experience with playing in any kind of ensemble, be that a duo, a small ensemble, or a guitar orchestra. I had never ventured into any kind of group music. However, now that I had some experience with it, I see incredible value to ensemble playing, and I was looking forward to the ensemble work this summer. (after re-reading this I should also add that what follows is my general impressions – I did not discuss these with anyone at the summer school).

The general outline of the first day of the school is that ensemble music is distributed, and parts assigned, at the first meeting of each of the ensembles. Since each of the ensembles is divided very roughly into a range of players of similar ability, it gives the ensemble director some latitude in assigning parts, and in moving people into parts that they can play. The other very clear impression is that each of the pieces, for whatever level, is selected to be a “stretch.” I don’t think that anyone can simply sight-read the piece on the first day.

My ensemble was led by Colin Davin. The two pieces we were going to work on were the “Intermezzo” from the opera Goyescas by Enrique Granados, arranged for 4 guitar parts, and a jazzy tune called “Toots”, which was a tribute to Toots Thielman. On the first day we spent most of our time on Toots, which would turn out to be something of a mistake. We did not see just how difficult the Granados piece would be.

As it turned out, that Granados piece presented two major challenges – there were several sections where the music is played above the 12th fret. The problems we experienced with this was first, just reading the notes – there are a lot of leger lines when reading a G or an A on the 15th or 17th fret of the first string. The other was fingering the notes – on a classical guitar there is not usually a cutout and, speaking for myself at least, I was not familiar with positioning and moving my hand up that high on the guitar. Yes, it *should* be easy – all the notes repeat at 12 – but it wasn’t.

The other difficulty with the piece was the timing. Most of the notes were to be played on the off-beat, with eight note rests starting many of the measure. While this would be something that could be worked out playing alone, with 12 other guitars it became quite the challenge.

Each of the ensembles had 5 days to get their pieces together for the final student concert. This gave a sense of urgency to learning the pieces and just the right amount of encouragement for people to get together outside of the normal hours to practice. One constant of the summer school is small groups of guitarists gathered almost everywhere practicing ensemble pieces, or ensemble voices. I think it was something that added to the camaraderie of the week. In the end, while I would not rate our performance of Granados internet ready, I think we did a passable job.  

Next – a 60 voice guitar orchestra.