The Benefits of Playing In Ensemble for Classical Guitarists

The classical guitar tends to be rather a solo instrument with seemingly fewer opportunities for group playing than our orchestral or band-focussed buddies.  Well, perhaps, but only to a degree I think (depending on where you live I suppose). Where there are two or more guitarists, or yourself and another musician there lies an opportunity to play together, learn from and experience a new form of playing and of course have fun.

I was reminded this weekend by the first rehearsal of the season for the CGSV Classical Guitar Orchestra that by playing music with others is a wonderful experience. And playing with other musicians, be they at a similar level or a peg or two above or below you in their technical development can really present some excellent developmental opportunities.

CGSV GO

Playing with others, be it in a duo, trio, ensemble or orchestra, can deliver a umber of benefits to a guitarist. These include:

  • Encouraging you to listen to how others play and exposing you to different sounds and approaches.
  • Encouraging you to listen harder to your own sound.
  • And in combination of the first two dot points, encouraging you to listen to how your sound blends with others in terms of quality, tone colour, volume and dynamics
  • Encouraging you to listen and “feel” the music in synchronisation with others. That pause, that placement, the movement of a line. Of course the conductor helps in this regard, but there are somethings which are definitely “felt” and playing with others helps exercise this.
  • Getting you to look up from your score and watch someone else for cues, timing and pulse.
  • Picking up a pulse and taking it on (whilst watching the conductor of course) and exercising keeping a steady and even pulse, resisting the urge to push on or pull things back.
  • Pushing you a little beyond your comfort zone in playing stuff you wouldn’t otherwise play on your own
  • Improving your sight-reading and fretboard geography
  • Increasing your musical understanding and appreciation of working with others to achieve a musical outcome.
  • And, one of the most important of all, having a lot of fun!!

So, its well worth seeing if there’s an ensemble in your area (just classical guitar or mixed) or playing some duets or trios with another classical guitar (or other instrumentalist) friend. Playing classical guitar is good fun, but it’s even better when shared with others, in my opinion.

Sight reading: are you a push bike or a Ferrari?

I was checking out Carlos Bonell’s blog recently, reading some of his witty little 100 lessons for life plucked from the guitar.

Number 5 of these referred to himself in his formative years as being a push-bike of a sight reader in comparison with sight reading Ferraris of orchestral-type instrumentalists. This little anecdote and life lesson reflects my own thoughts (and blog post only t’other day) that we as guitarists can sometimes suffer in our musicianship. This is what Carlos had to say….

While at William Ellis School in North London I played music with violinists, cellists and pianists. None of them were much older than me, but their music reading skills were way ahead. They were like Ferraris on their respective instruments, accelerating to 100 miles per hour in a few seconds. While I pedalled away on my push-bike guitar still at bar two, they were already at bar seven. I resolved to change this humiliating situation and through hard work and determination eventually replaced my guitar pushbike with a motorbike. It was a big improvement, but I kept working at it right through my teens and during my student days too until one day my persistence paid off spectacularly – but that’s another story.

Lesson for life:
Improve your guitar-reading skills so you can keep up with other musicians. Illiteracy is a handicap in all walks of life.

And check out his full blog post here: http://queenguitarrhapsodies.com/blog/?p=1244

As Carlos states, working on your musicianship skills can really pay dividends with your playing.

I believe ensemble playing can really help in that, push you outside of your comfort zone slightly, but inevitably coerces you in to really, really, REALLY learning your way around the fretboard. Did I say REALLY learning?! After playing with a group of others for a while fifth, seventh, ninth, tenth, you-name-it position playing will not be a problem – in fact, you won’t even think about it anymore. I can pretty much guarantee you this!

I remember after having played in an ensemble for a little while, being faced with a bit of sight-reading with shtuff around the seventh and ninth positions – I didn’t have time to think! Argh, I thought! I’m going to bugger this up aren’t I? My hands and sub-conscious brain thought better, however. They were moving around with ease – yes, this note is here, this one here….Noicely done. Noice… I was very pleasantly surprised. Whoop whoop! I’d dumped the treadley on the side of the road and was opening the gull-wing doors of my Ferrari Enzo. Yay!

This kind of ease of movement in terms of fretboard geography is brought about through diligent and daily practice of scales (those finger patterns and movement just become second nature) and putting yourself into a group situation where the ability to play on is crucial. With just a little study and pushing your boundaries a little one can achieve a lot. If I can do it, anyone can.