Guitar Ensemble School

Third Floor - Full of Facts

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Lesson 3

Enjoying your first Rehearsal
In this lesson we'll prepare for your first Get-Together


This lesson © Derek Hasted 1998 - please enjoy!


Where do we meet?

In the absence of a teacher, my preferred solution is to meet at a player's house, and to rotate the meeting place each practice. There are a lot of reasons why this works well, one of which I mention later.

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Who sits where?

A tough cookie. There isn't a simple answer.
Sometimes the tune should sit near the centre so that everyone can hear it and synchronise with it.
Sometimes, the bass is best placed in the middle.
Sometimes, in "call and response" music where one part echoes another, the easiest version to play is when the part and its echo are next to each other; however, the best performance, in the audience's ears, may well come when the part and its echo are at opposite ends of the row.

You want an easy answer? Of course you do. Begin by sitting in a circle - as tight as you can manage - facing together. In this way, everyone can hear the most clearly everything that's going on. Don't sit in a line till you're ready to start rehearsing for your first performance.

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Who is in charge?

In a teacher-led Ensemble, I kind of hope the teacher is, (though when I have a set of boisterous adults, I do sometimes wonder!) But when a group of equal-standard novice players meets, then my suggestion is that the person providing the venue becomes the leader for that session. The leader isn't an autocrat, of course, but it is nice if everyone has the chance, week by week, to suggest parts and to have the experience of counting the ensemble in. A simple system like this also provides a starting point for "managing without the teacher", in which no-one feels it is their job to "be teacher", and either no-one volunteers, or everyone does.

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But I want the tune!

If I had a pound (or a dollar, come to think of it - I'm not greedy) for every Ensemble which is dogged by everyone wanting the tune, I'd have an independent income for life.

The tune is invariably the favourite line to want to play, at least initially, for a number of reasons. It is the tune, for a start, meaning it's perhaps less likely that you'll make mistakes in rhythm, or lose your place. And it is the part which an audience hears the most clearly, so it might make you feel the hero of the hour. And of course, it is the one part which is indispensable. (Though wearing my composer's hat, I can tell you that no part is actually indispensable, at least if the composer has done his job properly!)

So why on earth would anyone want to play anything other than the tune? Lots of reasons. Let me spell out the two most important.

The first is to give everyone the chance to play the tune. Not because it is the "best" part but because each part will have a variety of technical problems and musical possibilities, and it is unwise to develop the Ensemble in a way which doesn't develop each player too. If everyone takes the tune in turn, everyone will also take every other part in turn, and this is the key to develop everyone's playing just as much, if not more, than playing the tune well.

The second applies in those cases when the players are of differing abilities and the parts of the ensemble are at different standards. Quite simply, in this case, the sound of the finished Ensemble matters much more than the pride or stubbornness of individual players. There may well be a way of allocating parts which is "the best", in which case, that's the one which the Ensemble should use to best effect. Do be careful - the number of ways of allocating parts is larger than you might think. There are 24 different ways that a quartet can allocate parts among themselves, so don't spend all day trying all possible permutations - there isn't a magic one which is 200% better than all the others!

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Tuning up

Of course you all tune up before you start. It's just that Ensemble playing imposes some extra demands on this too...

For a start, its not enough to have each instrument in tune with itself. It has to be in tune with the others too. Yes, I know it's obvious, but checking that your guitar sounds in tune with a couple of chords isn't enough! Also obvious is that fact that you need to tune up one at a time if you are going to do it properly.

But there's one more consideration, especially for those who rely on an electronic tuner to tune them up. It's actually fairly simple too. If some of you have travelled to the practice, your guitars may have spent different lengths of time at different ambient temperatures. When you tune them up, the guitars may go out of tune relative to each other as they adjust to the new room environment, because they may settle in different ways, depending on the temperature they were as you arrived. This is much more intrusive than a single guitar coming up to temperature, where all the strings move in the same direction but the guitar stays in tune relative to itself. It can be the case, then, that an ensemble needs to tune up more times during the evening than a solo guitar would. And the rub is that you have to listen to know that the Ensemble has gone out of tune!

Don't be surprised if you need to tune up more often than you expect - it's not that you made a mess of it first time, it's that individual guitars are going out of tune. Indeed, if you can spot this early enough on, well done for listening in detail!

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Doing it for the first time

What do we do?

The day has arrived - you're here. You've read the section on preparation and.... and.....
That awful feeling, when you all turn up, get your Guitars out and look at each other. HELP!!!!

With a teacher in charge, there's no problem in getting going. But if you are leader-less, you might wonder how to proceed.

Far be it from me to lay down the law. To be honest, if no-one has a strong preference for how to proceed, then it's highly unlikely that what you do do is going to be wrong! Just don't get flustered if your dreams of instant success don't seem to come to fruition. It won't just "click" on your first meeting. Success on your first date? No, that only happens to other people!

Anyway, if it was going to be effortlessly easy on your first run-through, what else have you got to aim for?

Here's a few tips on getting started....

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Your first post mortem

We can narrow down your first ever, ever, play through into two possible outcomes...

If it worked, move on to the next section and count yourself more lucky than naturally talented. Or stay around to find you why...

So, it didn't work quite as well as you hoped. Why not? Because maybe you were a little ambitious after all. Re-read Lesson 2 where I talk about complexity and listening skills. Initially, your ears will be hearing a whole lot of notes that you didn't create. Up until now, your Solo playing has been a tightly-knit environment of your construction.

But in an Ensemble, you are going to hear things that aren't on your score, from a source that is most patently not sitting on your lap, at a time that you might not have been expecting. And that's the key difference. Your rhythm mustn't be synchronised to your internal body clock, but to the composite sound. Which means that your ears and your brain have an extra job to do - to relate your notes to the others and correct any timing anomalies.

This is a new skill. And like any new skill, it requires patience and effort to become proficient. Oh yes, you most certainly will, but all the time you are starting, this effort is going to take a large portion of your concentration, and this in itself can take the edge off your playing.

Just try the piece again. Just play from Rehearsal Mark to Rehearsal Mark if you are unsure how to rescue a piece which has gone pear-shaped. Try it 20% slower than you were hoping for, to give everyone more time to assimilate this extra information. And you'll find it works much better.

But what if it comes apart and you just don't know why. Simple - just tape record your efforts, and listen to the whole sound, no longer distracted by the need to move fingers, count and play. You'll hear the overall picture much more clearly.

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Now what? How to improve

There are a number of ways to proceed, but I'm only really interested in those which can help you improve steadily.

Don't forget that there are two things to improve upon. Technical issues and Musical issues....

I'm envious of Confucius. In a simple and concise sentence he could impart more wisdom and insight that I've probably achieved in this whole article.
But that's perhaps because I really believe that there isn't a magic sentence that will solve all your problems.
It's also because I'm convinced that so much of Ensemble technique is common sense. Obvious. So obvious, though, that you might just miss it.

If the person who leads the Ensemble can (to use lots of big words in one sentence) act not so much as a leader, but as a facilitator, you'll find that all the problems are ironed out easily.

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How to interpret

Interpretation is, of course, the je ne sais quoi which turns a pile of notes into a piece of music. Most of the stock techniques - phrasing and contrasts, for example - are not only well known, but part and parcel of any good Guitar teacher's kit of lesson bits and pieces.

So what I'll do here is concentrate on a few extra comments which are really only applicable to Ensemble work. Because of this, they really are quite important.

Let's imagine for the moment that we're a trio, and let's concentrate on that type of music I've already identified as being mainly single-line. Not that my remarks only work with trios, of course, but I can use that to compare and contrast (as it used to say in those awful School Essays when I was a kid...) with Solo Guitar.

At any one time, then, your listeners (and you if you're doing your job properly!) are going to hear three notes at once. Not so very different from a solo, actually. So how can we exploit that fact that we have got six hands, rather than two, to make the music sound better than a solo. If we can't, two of us might as well go home now!

Well, it starts with having a really good piece to play, and a good arranger will be able to capture the sound he wants, free of many of the constraints that burden a solo arranger. You really can have a first fret note and a tenth fret note at the same time if you share the load. And you can have such polyphonic gambits as contrary motion, which is so much harder than parallel motion (for example, parallel sixths) on a Solo guitar, but for an Ensemble is just as easy! It means that a good arranger can paint his musical picture on a bigger canvas, and even with a small number of parts, can bring into it techniques which a soloist can't readily manage. One reward, then, is that the parts in an Ensemble have greater freedom and a bigger life than the component notes in a Solo.

Assuming, though, that the music has already be purchased, I presume that you want to improve the piece that's now sitting on your music stand.

Here are some good areas to address...

You'll see some of these general ideas and a few specific ones too, applied directly to a simple piece of music if you come and jon me at a rehearsal

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How to tell the person on your left that they're a complete jerk

In any Ensemble which is playing at a modest level, some poor player will end up making more mistakes than everyone else. With the right frame of mind within the group, this really isn't a problem, but what if one person seems to be holding you up. There are a number of strategies, and each of them has to be a delicate blend, a mix of explaining how to cure the problem without making anyone feel a failure.

It might seem self-evident that an ensemble is only as good as its weakest player, but in fact the whole is more than the sum of the parts. For a start, a misfingered note in a quartet doesn't carry like a misfingered note in a solo, because a misfingering in a solo often brings down a whole chord all at once - the famous "hand full of fresh-air" syndrome. And so a good ensemble can encourage a weak player to improve much more effectively than solo work ever could. Bear this in mind before reading the riot act to anyone.

Here are some tried and tested strategies for lifting a weak player....

So, how do you tell the person on your left that they're a complete jerk? You don't. You help them.
Because one day, they may find that they have a complete jerk on their right....

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What do we do for next time?

If the group is working actively, there will be two jobs which require solo practice at home, before the next "get-together"

Do remember that Ensemble playing can be tiring, because you have to do all the normal things and you have to listen and constantly re-appraise your part in the context of what you hear. You may also end up doing more playing in your get-together than you'd ever normally do in a single session at home. Probably, your concentration will give out before your fingers, so if clumsy mistakes seem to be on the increase, maybe it's time to call a halt and go home on a high.

By the same token, Ensemble playing can be exhilarating. You may find time flies by. Check out some suitable excuses for arriving home late!

Finally, and no, I'm not trying to mother you, do double check that you know where and when you are meeting again!

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