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.