The Old Guitar Ensemble School

Ensemble Masterclass

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Masterclass 1

In this class, we'll explore how to arrange music for Guitar Ensemble


This masterclass © Derek Hasted 1998 - please enjoy!

Should I read this?

This rather pompously named "Masterclass" is for people who might like to know some of the proven hints and tips for writing and arranging Ensemble Music for Guitar. As such, it has a rather narrow audience, and if it holds no interest for you, please feel free to leave the Masterclasses and come into my Classroom or my Rehearsal room.

If you are interested, than I do assume that you know a little of the theory of music, ideally by formal instruction, but failing that by knowing enough about music that the intrinsic building blocks of Solo Guitar music strike you as self-evident.

And if, having read all this, you come to the conclusion that it's a lot of hard work, then you'll know why I'm only giving away a few freebies on this site, and I'm rather hoping that you purchase some of my published works!

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The skills of arranging music for Guitar are many and varied.

The additional skills of arranging music for Ensemble Guitar are many and varied too, but I'm going to see if I can help teach you some of these additional skills, at least at a novice to intermediate level.

This isn't a definitive treatise on arranging, it's...

If you can't arrange for Solo Guitar, this page really isn't going to help you much!

But why is the section called Tonto?
Well, you see, Ensemble music isn't about writing for Solo Guitar - that needs a Lone Arranger....

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Why oh why D-I-Y?

There is a whole range of excellent, and more importantly tried and tested, Ensemble Music out there in the wide world, and producing your own arrangements is a labour of love.

There's that very pertinent quote - "I don't know why a man dedicates a year of his life to writing a book when you can buy one for $10"

But there are times when Do-It-Yourself is most satisfying and the end result is hand crafted just the way you want.

Maybe too, if you can see what goes in to an Ensemble arrangement, you'll have a better feel for how to get it back out!.

Whether you are a teacher wanting to tailor music to your particular players, or whether you are one of the Ensemble players, wanting to capture a favourite piece for your group, there are, to paraphrase a proverb and issue a Government Health Warning all in one go, more ways of killing an Ensemble than strangling it.

It's one thing to arrange or compose a solo and then find it's impossible to play and the bit you can manage sounds like a tape being played backwards. It's another to gather together a whole lot of players and ask them to produce a sound like 4 tapes being played backwards. For a start, there's a lot of explaining to do at the end of the first run through!

From picking a piece which will "go" to making the best sound you can with 'n' guitarists of ability 'x', there are some hints and tips which I'd like to pass on, if only to avoid that situation which I have witnessed, where a budding composer has collected some willing players and they have sat in a circle, with good intentions and... and... produced, well, nothing much at all really.
Apart from some very sad expressions.
And people looking at their watches.
And each other.

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Picking a piece which will go

If you sat in on my earlier Lesson, you'll know that it is important not to have delusions of grandeur about how complex the Ensemble music should be.

I recommend single-line music while you find your feet.

And generally speaking, at least in recent history, the first piece a composer writes is not the one which is the pinnacle of his achievement, and against which all subsequent efforts are compared. So don't begin by arranging the one piece you really want to arrange. Try something easier. Like walking, talking, or eating your lunch without dropping it down your shirt, arranging is a skill that you have to learn. Fortunately, your gravest mistakes can be made in the privacy of your own home, freeing you from the musical equivalent of dropping scalding coffee in your lap on your first date.

For a first attempt, music with a steady pulse in 3/4 or 4/4 time is probably more likely to go well than a compound or irregular time.

Don't rip off someone else! The laws on copyright vary from Country to Country, but in broad terms, whilst an arrangement of a well-known piece might be your own blood, sweat and tears, every copy you sell, every audience who pays to hear it, is making money on the basis of the piece's existing fame. Therefore, if the piece isn't in the public domain, either get permission to arrange the music, or don't arrange it.

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How many parts?

As you can see - arranging a piece in six parts is going to be twice as much work as arranging it in three. (Actually, it's even more than that, and I know that from experience!) If you have a dozen players, do you need a dozen parts? The answer is a resounding no. From the point of view of who plays what, there are only so many notes on a Guitar that can all be part of a consonant chord. Let's have an example - if we take the chord of E, we can fit about ten notes into that chord before we start introducing duplicates. And if we acknowledge that the melody has to move up and down, then the number of notes available to us is about eight. More players than this and we shall have to give them duplicate notes. So if you have, as I do, about 30 players in your group, you really can't write 30 different parts, all using different notes!

Don't feel that it's essential to write lots of parts. Each additional part tends to add progressively less to the overall sound, and increases the complexity of the rehearsal as well as the risk of mistakes in the score!

Start modestly. If your first efforts leave you wanting more, you have done well. You'll have the confidence, experience and skills to try something a little more complex.

If your first efforts die a death, you'll have the reluctance of your fellow players to overcome, next time you produce a new arrangement!

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Derek's List of things not to do

It's an unusual teacher who concentrates on the negative, but sometimes listing the things that don't work is quicker than listing the things which do. And, by all accounts, I'm a pretty unusual teacher anyway!

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Accentuate the positive

OK - that was the downside. What positive tips do I have?

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Arranging music for Guitar Ensemble is not for the faint-hearted.

Producing an arrangement which is simple enough to work first time, yet musical enough to satisfy, is time consuming. And how!

There's a beautiful proverb -

"Something is finished, not when there is nothing more to add,
but when there is nothing more to take away"

Let that be your guide.
Sculpt your music so that it has a clarity, a purpose and a pure simplicity.
The true beauty of music is in its elegance.

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