Michael emphasizes ensemble music that includes the guitar, and has written for some very interesting players: Martha Masters, Denis Azabagic, Joseph Hagedorn, Michael Partington, Daniel Bolshoy, Newman and Oltman Guitar Duo, Duo46, and others. He has won various awards and fellowships over the years, and his music continues to be performed around the world.
Internacional Guitar Festival. Hersbruck, GermanyBy Johannes Tonio Kreusch
Since several years I´m the artistic director of the International Guitar Festival in Hersbruck, Germany. The festival in Hersbruck started rather small with just a few artists and some workshops. When I agreed to run this festival I wanted to establish a special festival inviting some of the most exciting guitarists from a wide range of genres to present a week of “undiluted guitar“ with all possible colors and facets of tone and sound. It is a great pleasure for me to be able to invite appreciated guitar colleagues and friends.
When I put together the program I´m more interested to look for artists, who have a new and exciting approach than looking for the well-trodden paths. In the past years we had guitar stars like Tommy Emmanuel, Leo Brouwer, Pepe Romero, David Russell, Carlos Barbosa-Lima, Alvaro Pierri, Eliot Fisk or Hopkinson Smith, to name just a few, but I´m always also presenting young exciting artists, which might be not so know to the general public. I have also composers in residence at my festival lecturing about composing and the festival commissions new works, which are premiered during the festival. Over the last years I was also proud to present artists, which had never played solo in Germany before like Bill Kanengiser or Carlos Barbosa-Lima. Also the astonishing Brazilian guitarist Yamandu Costa played one of his first concerts in Europe in Hersbruck and received a record contract after his Hersbruck performance.
Next to the concerts and guitar classes, all over the week there are exhibitions, lectures, sessions, master classes, workshops and lessons at the festival center. I have extended the seminars. There is more of it, now under the name “Hersbruck Music Academie“, containing lectures like "Right Practice", "Diseases of musicians avoid and heal", "Issues to interpret early music", „Improvisation for Classical Musician“ etc...A great thing is also, that students are able to apply for scholarships to get financial aid in order to be able to participate at the festival. There are also plenty of possibilities for students to play in public during the festival week and they can also receive an official review from the local newspaper.
My idea of the festival is to present a melting point of different styles and inspiring artists, where students and musicians all over the world can learn from each other and benefit from the different musical approaches. We have always also a great Jazz ensemble at the festival, which is available at the final night to jam with. It is always great to see, if also Classical players are open for this experience. One time for example, we had the great lutenist Robert Barto at the festival playing a wonderful all Weiss program. It was absolutely memorable, when he took up the electric guitar at the final night to jam with the jazz-band!
If you are interested to get more information about the festival, then please visit: www.gitarre-hersbruck.de
Fernando Bartolomé Zofío
What is the current landscape with guitar ensembles in Italy at the institutional level?
Actually Italy has a very interesting landscape with guitar ensemble, especially regarding guitar orchestras and little combinations as duos.
At the professional level that’s more difficult to make it works because guitar concerts are especially in guitar festivals and also because it’s difficult to make the ensemble work in the long distance.
Yes Eon Guitar Quartet is a “long distance runner” ensemble. I personally founded it in the beginning of 2000 and with little changes in the group we are lasting over 10 years
So actually I just know 2 or 3 stable combos in Italy.
One of that is another personal (with my colleague Rita Casagrande) project of a guitar orchestra named “La Follìa Guitar orchestra” but it’s a sort of social project connecting professional players and “amateurs”.
Roberto Tascini has a similar activity too “Marche Guitar Orchestra” in his area (centre Italy), then we have other similar formations.
As real professional ensemble I can count …well…nobody else than Eon Guitar Quartet. (smile)
What place has ensemble guitars in conservatory and music academies programs?
Since Conservatory was a ten years course we didn’t have a special ensemble program.
A student had to attend chamber music course but not specifically guitar ensemble, so usually students have practice of guitar duo or with flute/violin, once a week.
In the recent reformation of the musical studies we have more hours dedicated to chamber music but, as I know, still not specially focused on guitar ensemble.
On a personal level, what references and influences do you have in the world of guitar ensembles? What about general music?
Well, I think I already answered about italian scene. In the international level we luckily travel a lot in the guitar festivals around World and we don’t meet many guitar quartet around…So I think that if you exclude historical formations like LAGQ, or Los Romeros , we can count Eon Guitar Quartet in Italy other 2-3 in Europe and a similar number in South America. Different numbers are in USA but sincerely we don’t know the musical scene over there because you know, often the ensemble born in colleges and then they play especially in that ambient…
In the musical general world sincerely I have to make a question to you: Does guitar counts anything? (smile)
Which composers are, in your opinion, indisputable references in ensembles guitar?
Well, we used to play lot of original guitar quartet repertoire.
One of the most important is for sure Leo Brouwer, and we played every single piece from him. Other composers that I know are played by other quartets are Rak, Bellinati, Martin, Dyens, but sincerely we don’t play them. (except for Bellinati)
About “historical” composer we have to mention Torroba with the Estampas and Rafagas very interesting from a lyrical point of view but personally I think a little too simplistic as writing and nothing you can’t do with just 2 guitars.
Can you cite some works that have marked definitely the guitar quartet repertoire?
Brouwer’s: Paisaje cubano con lluvia, paisaje cubano con rumba, Torroba estampas (from historical point of view) other contemporary composer’s works as Shnyder suite.
In these various influences you have, from classical to electronic music, how fits that in your group? Interpretation? Does the choice of repertoire? Arrangements?
Yes we all had different experiences, it was very useful in the first part of our history to know the repertoire and to learn and develop ourselves our idea of guitar quartet.
We definitely think about the quartet as a little orchestra and every one of us put in his way of playing his instrumental and musical knowledge.
I think that if we would have been “simply” classical guitarist we would play as guitarist…;) (ahahha!)
So repertoire choice is based on pure musical taste and arrangements are ever more taken from orchestral pieces. We also try to reproduce various instrument timbres and gestures on guitars
A composer who has enough interest and is being played widely is Paulo Bellinati. You have played "A furiosa." Can you tell us something about the piece and the composer?
Yes we recorded A Furiosa in our cd. It is a really enjoyable piece, full of south-american rhythm and gestures. It makes me dance every time we play.
Actually it’s one of our favorite encores.
This is because from a musical point of view it’s a very simple piece, and that’s great to finish a concert with this “song” in the ears! Time ago I had some email exchange with Bellinati, he seems to be a kind persons. We also had a project of collaboration but actually we are interested in another kind of projects regarding orchestral XX century music more focused on the inner part of composition than on the “superficial” rhythms and harmonic structures.
Another composer of great talent and recognition is Andrew York. What can you say about him? Can you tell us about his work "Quiccam"?
Andrew York have a real preeminent position in guitar quartet’s music because his career with LAGQ. He seems to be really sincere in his “new age” music compositions.
We played Quiccam a couple of times in concerts, we enjoyed the study but finally decided to don’t play anymore because this kind of music tends to deplete itself (and musicians) because its goal that is more targeted to effect than on music construction.
Is there a composer who has not written for guitar quartet that you wish you did?
I really would like to have a piece in our repertoire by composers like Castelnuovo Tedesco or Villa Lobos or Britten (for guitar composers) or Schoenberg or Brahms or Stravinsky or better too Bach! That’s because guitar quartet and guitar in general needs to have a really specific repertoire from composers that really know orchestration and harmony, in fact the composers I mentioned, all wrote pieces for string quartet!
How do you organize group rehearsals?
Actually we have rehearsal about every 15 days for an entire weekend because we live in 3 different parts of Italy: Mario Barbuti in Rome, Roberto Tascini near Ancona, Rita Casagrande and me in Bologna.
General principle of assigning the parts is to distribute and make it circle the first voice, so we don’t have a real “first guitar “ (don’t believe to the others…maybe we have a “primadonna” guitar!;)) so it’s not a string quartet like role.
What is the process of working on a new piece? How long can lead from the start until it leads to concert?
Usually it depends on the concerts. Generally we can mount a new piece in a couple of rehearsals and then play in concerts. So in a month we can perform a new piece but it happened to mount a piece in 4 days! (it was a commission)
Process is similar to a single player’s study: everyone studies his parts at home, then we play together (often with metronome), then we discuss and try to listen each other the parts. Time to time we record the piece to listen to the external result. We know about other groups that can perform in different rooms…For us it’s already difficult to stay one in front of the other…
At the end when we prepare a recording or after long playing a piece, we try to play it by heart to be really sure!
How do you choose the repertoire?
Since we studied about the 90 per cent of the published repertoire, we ever more try to investigate on our personal tastes and ideas of what we would like to play if we are free to choose. Sometimes we have to build up a program on specific subject (F.E.: italian music, dance, suite, orchestra, spanish…), other time we try to enlarge guitar quartet repertoire commissioning to composers transcriptions and new pieces.
What can a group learn about from making transcriptions and arrangements?
In general we really like to play orchestral transcriptions and better to play something that make connection between guitar with its history, technique, timbre gestures, with orchestral colors, dynamic, and different instruments voices. So if I had to suggest a new group how to begin to make a “group sound” I really would recommend to do transcriptions and to try to make as much near to original as possible.
Which factors are crucial for testing the quality of a guitar ensemble? What do you value most in a group?
First of all sympathy! (ahahah!)
Well, seriously, most important thing is the global “soundscape”. If you can hear almost 3 of 4 guitars there is something wrong! You should hear 4 different voices going together, being guitars but with real personality. Yes the point is the personality. An ensemble without conductor has to show the real sound of counterpoint but with the personal sound of every performer.
This is a blog where we devote many resources to the educational aspect of the guitar in groups. Do you know some material that may be of interest for beginners that are introducing in a group of guitars?
If you have children I recommend a book from this italian colleague: Vito Nicola Paradiso “La chitarra volante in ensemble”. A real interesting web site is the website of Andrew Forrest (http://www.forrestguitarensembles.co.uk) a real treasure for guitar orchestras.
At the intermediate level, what interesting repertoire, musical and pedagogically speaking, you could recommend?
As we did, it’s important to read all the standard repertoire, from Torroba to Brouwer to Bellinati and York. The best thing is to enjoy chamber music and to try to listen all the voices while playing the composition.
What is the best advice you would give to form a group? What is needed for a project to works well and survives in time?
What is the best advice you would give to form a group? What is needed for a project to works well and survives in time?
If you want to form a group first you have to ask to yourself if your personal idea of music puts the performer or the music at the first place.
I want to reveal you a secret: as in the best marriages it’s great to be together but better to live far each other! ahahah!!!
No it’s a joke! You have to be as a long distance runner , as the one who wish to run a marathon: the goal is so far that the road will tell you in every step what to do, you have to enjoy it, you have to keep in mind the goal but you have to know exactly how much you can speed up. So dose the energy, listen the road (to the music) and don’t rush!
What are your current and future projects?
Actually we are preparing our new Cd bases on orchestral music by really XX century composers as Martin, Walton, De Falla and so on…
We are preparing our annual appointment with students. Since 3 years we are resident quartet in Classical Guitar Festival : http://www.ousiarmonica.it , a really great musical situation in the Bologna hills, where we do masterclasses for ensemble and solo players, make concert, play new compositions, make the jury in performing competition…and at in the night we drink beer and talk about music with young players and composers!
Fernando Bartolomé Zofío
The theme of the article could answer this simple: Because they are very good.
End of the matter
But what makes so good the Assad brothers as a duo and what makes it succeed and be a historical example of excellence?
It is not enough talent. Charles Chaplin said that talent is all over the place. It’s needed something more, such as work.
For me there are a number of factors, some more obvious than others, which makes the result of this guitar duo a superb example of musical excellence together. These are:
1. Choice of repertoire.
If the works chosen are not of quality, no matter how good the musicians, the result cannot be good and may tire quickly. The Assad brothers in their repertoire include great works from all periods, original and transcribed, with special attention to contemporary music.
2. Ensemble coordination.
With coordination we talk about rhythm, dynamics, phrasing ... We talk about technique but also talk about ensemble rapport. When your partner knows you well the results are much better. The Assads are well known.
3. Personal identity on the interpretation.
Its okay to copy from the best, but the main thing is to learn from them and process the information, mature and get the music you have inside. No two interpretations are equal and should not even be remotely similar interpretations. That is to create a personal identity.
4. Skills for arrangements.
One way to play music from other eras and other groups is through the arrangements. Increases the repertoire for the set and allows access to music hard for guitar solo. The Assad have great skills in the arrangements (Rhapsody in blue-Gershwin, Frevo-Gismonti, Scarlatti Sonatas, ...)
5. Outstanding individual technique.
Surely it is the most obvious of all factors but the superb technical of this duo is not the main reason for its value as a group.
The result of a set depends largely on the ability of members to communicate with each other in a continuous and active way.
7. Love for music.
To keep a considerable time with a high level of motivation passion is needed for making music. It is easy for the flame to go off and become this art in a routine.
8. Ambition to reach everyone.
It takes passion for music and passion for wanting to share our art with everyone. It’ is so sad to die with the music within.
9. Ask for new works to great composers.
Once we have reached a certain level and prestige, something that enlarges the group is to ask composers to write for it, whatever they are. If composers are important, so much better.
The list is totally unfair and could add many more ideas to make it complete but I think as an approach may be fine.
Anyone better than Assad brothers to talk about the rubato and empathy in the interpretation:
”It takes a lot of years. We’d play ten hours a day. We’d play and play and play, until you understand the rubato of the other person—and not just understand, but react accordingly. You create all this freedom on the spot because you know the person very well "
Although it may be a little intimidating this confession gives a good idea of how to improve as a group.
Interview with Eos Guitar Quartet
By Fernando Bartolomé Zofío
How do you begin with the Quartet?
We met during the early eighties when we were all studying at the conservatory in Zürich. There weren’t many idols back then. Some inspiration we got from Los Romeros and the then newly founded Los Angeles Guitar Quartet.
From your latest album “20 +” there is a relationship of very important names of which a majority is related to the world of jazz (Camilo, Stern, Gismonti, Frith…). Has it been personal taste for jazz and big personality’s choice?
Yes, of course! We all love Jazz, Flamenco and World Music. And we’ve met and got to know many of those musicians personally, during the course of these years. It felt natural to ask them for commissioning a composition.
There is a composer, Fred Frith, whose piece has seemed simple but very attractive, with prepared guitars, minimalism…. Can you speak about the work and the composer? Have you played more works with prepared guitar? What tools did you work with? What indications in the score?
In "Fair", Frith colourfully accentuates a mellow Icelandic dawn. For that, David uses a Chinese chopstick, Marcel a drum stick, Martin works the guitar with the cello bow and Michael struggles with constantly changing artificial flageolets. You can actually hear the bone-chilling cold in this piece. Information about Frith can be found under
By the way: Leo Brouwer has issued an order for bottlenecks in his piece <Acerca del cielo: La ciudad de las mil cuerdas>; that’s all concerning the subject Prepared Guitars.
If you could choose a composer you didn’t work with, for commissioning a work. Who would be?
There are some great musicians and composers on our wish list, such as John Scofield or Pat Metheny, whom we got to know recently. If his time permits, he might compose a longer piece for guitar quartet.
You have recorded music of George Gruntz. I have found interesting and very original music with an attractive atmospheres and very careful timbres. Can you speak about it? Does he have more works for guitar? It was commissioned for him or was already composed the work?
George Gruntz is a famous swiss jazz composer and a great leader of a bigband. When we contacted him to compose a work for guitar quartet he never wrote until that moment for the guitar. In order to know the possibilities of our instrument he bought himself a cheap guitar. So he was able to control whether for example an accord technically can be played or not.
If so, how was the relationship with him? Does he master the language? Does he requested suggestions or allow you to make changes?
We had a very good relationship and we have of course the same native language. After having received the composition we had to arrange certain things in order to make it playable, always of course with his permission. But generally we can say that the piece is composed so well that we had to change only little things.
The interesting guitar quartet that Gruntz wrote for you have the title “no Xod! To Rap (Paradoxon)” What is this?
This composition bases upon a remarkable text by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, a famous swiss author, which was performed on the occasion of an award which received the former president of the Czech republic Vaclav Havel. The speech had the title «Switzerland a paradoxon». If you read paradoxon from the back it will be «no xod a rap». That is it, very simple.
You have made arrangements of Boccherini, Vivaldi, Stravinsky, Rossini... How is the process of arrangement? What can we expected of an orquestal arrangement for guitar quartet? Are you looking for a new point of view for an old work or simply the possibility of enjoying non-original music for guitar?
The arrangement is always the work of one of us. The piece which is going to be arranged must be choose very carefully. Not every composition is suited for guitar quartet. The music must be prickling and must have certain easiness, heavy melancholic romantic music does not suit very well. To play the overture by Rossini for example is a very joyful experience and sometimes a composition becomes in our reduced version even more understandable.
What was your toughest work arrangement and why?
Every arrangement of a piece which is originally written for symphonic orchestra is a very tough work and needs a lot of thinking. First of all you have got to know what the essential of a part is, which voice is absolutely necessary and which can be neglected. Then you have to do the instrumentation, to arrange all the voices in order to create a great variety. Each guitar has to play solos as well as accompaniments and has to use all colors you can play on the guitar in order to reproduce the quality of sound of an orchestra.
Forgive my ignorance and not having the score but how a work like "Acerca del cielo: La ciudad de las mil cuerdas” of Leo Brouwer can be worked? Is there precision in the writing or there are indications to improvise?
There is no precision in the score. The rhythm is written down in space notation and the pitches are definite, like in the early Works of Brouwer (Parabola, Per suonare a due…) and influential composers like Henze, Penderecki, Ligeti and others.
Do you have any composer whose music you had played that, in your view, it stands out for his talent to write music for guitars?
Most of our composers are guitar players with profound experiences in the instrument. Our favorites are Fred Frith, Ralph Towner and Vinz Vonlanthen who all are very inventive.
How is worked the subject of guitar ensembles at the conservatories in Switzerland? Is there a serious work?
No, there is not.
In Basel and Berne they prefer to unite the guitar with others instruments, chamber music in mixed combinations. In Zurich however the students are playing more in guitar groups.
How do you planning rehearsals?
Our structure is strictly democratic and each player can put in his quality. Nobody plays the first guitar in all pieces. We have one till three rehearsals weekly depending on the necessity.
How do you organize a new work?
Most of all new works are commissioned. In our concerts we play a mixture of new commissioned works and older transcriptions from the classical and baroque era.
What key factors are important to evaluate the quality of a group of guitars? What do you value most in a group?
One of the most important things in a guitar ensemble is dynamic balance. We work a lot on this topic. We try to approximate the sound of an orchestra. Then of course precise interaction and accurate intonation are essential.
Can you tell us about interesting half level material, pedagogically and musically points of view?
Jürg Kindle, a Swiss guitarist/composer wrote quite a few very interesting pieces on different levels. Kalimba would fit in this category.
Interesting initial level repertoire, from a musical and didactic point of view.
Trans Europa Express by Jürg Kindle. And he has more; his pieces are surely worth a try.
The best advice to make a group.
It's difficult to give advices on this matter. We can only tell you about our beginning: As we said before, we met during our studies at Music Academy Zürich. After a few changes the actual line-up crystallized. Over the years we observed that the fact of having studied with the same teacher (Walter Feybli) gave us a collective musical basis, a mutual understanding. That doesn’t mean that we don’t fight a lot over interpretation. There is still room for discussion.
What is the best advice you can give for maintaining a group?
We don’t know if this is imperative for a group, but we are very lucky insofar as we understand each other not only musically. We like to spend time together away from the guitar, talk about family matters, movies, literature etc. And also each member has enough room to pursue other musical projects of his own from which the quartet profits a lot. But like in a marriage, in order to last, you have to put work into the relationship. That means you should talk about problems when they arise and try to solve them together. We fight quite a bit from time to time, but this glues us together even more. Let’s hope it remains this way.
Why form a group of guitars? Which are the benefits for the student and the musician?
There’s nothing better than playing in an ensemble. You learn everything. Playing actively and passively, listening and guiding, focussing on yourself or on the entire group, to have one’s own way as well as backing down. Believe us, playing in a quartet is a school for life!
Eos Guitar Edition
Duo Sylvie Dambrine & Marcel Ege
Letizia Fiorenza & David Sautter
Flamencos en route,
in guitar winterthur the festival
Duo Sylvie Dambrine & Marcel Ege
Letizia Fiorenza & David Sautter
Flamencos en route,
in guitar winterthur the festival
DEREK HASTED INTERVIEW
By Fernando Bartolomé Zofío for Modern guitar ensemble
Which parameters do you used to evaluate the quality of an ensemble? What is really important in ensemble playing for you?
Unlike orchestral instruments, it's quite rare for guitarists to get together to play in an ensemble. I think there is a distinction between an ensemble of players all of the same ability, and an ensemble made up of players of mixed abilities. But of course, a lot of ensemble music is written to take advantage of these two particular sorts of ensemble. So the first choice must be to find music of the right standard for every player.
We should make a distinction between what is important for the players in the ensemble - a sense of fun and friendship - and what is important for the audience - a lovely sound. Sometimes when playing in an ensemble, there are tuning problems which are very easy for the audience to hear but perhaps not the players - if two guitars on the outside edges of the ensemble are out of tune with each other, the effect in the audience can be obvious long before the players realize. I encourage regular tuning with electronic tuners, so that all the players can tune at the same time. And a rounded tone is very important, especially if there are several players on one line, because otherwise it becomes very obvious if one of the players is slightly ahead or behind the beat. With the exception of percussion, all the instruments in the symphony orchestra have a soft start to each note, and that makes orchestral music sound very tight, rhythmically. If notes have a harsh start with perhaps a nail click, then small errors in timing are easier to hear. So these are the things what we want of the instrument.
What do we want of the players? The most important is that they must listen - and react - to what they hear around them, so that the music stays tight and is able to slow together at the end of each phrase. Reacting to others' music is a skill that a solo player doesn't have to have, and therefore probably never learns. But this is why it's important to have music that is not at the top level of a player's ability - one needs to be able to do *extra* listening in an ensemble. In some cases players need to watch each other to stay in step, perhaps at the end of a piece. You cannot relate to and react to the music around you if all your attention is on the printed music in front of you.
To me, what makes a good ensemble is when all the guitars have the correct volume with respect to each other, so that the chords which are made when all the parts sound together sound like they have come from one instrument. I like it to be hard to determine who is playing what! I also love to see players look at each other, so that it is obvious that the music is being constructed together, rather than being put together by people working in isolation. I think an ensemble that is good to watch is usually one that is good to hear!
Do you work sight-reading in the classroom? How do you do it?
I think sight-reading is very important. A good sight-reader will have spent part of every practice time playing something that is unfamiliar. But this is not time that is wasted, because the skill that you pick up means that you can learn a brand new piece much more quickly. Learning to read well is a skill that takes time, but repays that time over and over again. Playing music at sight also means that you are much more likely to read the notes, rather than the fingering, and you are much more likely to remember finger shapes and rhythm patterns if you see lots of different examples of them.
Do you have any special trick to accustom students to reading with sharps, flats and natural signs?
These signs are a necessary part of music, but of course, they are nothing to do with the music one hears. If I whistle a tune when I am driving my car, I don't know what notes I am whistling, and I don't know which ones are sharp and which are not. All that matters is the progress of the music up and down in pitch. I tell my students that the sharps in a key signature are there to make those jumps up and down the correct size. And then I try to help my students recognize those same ups and downs in the music. I find that it's very helpful to give students simple melodies that they know (such as Christmas Carols and Folk themes) so that they quickly learn to get a natural "feel" for what should be sharp or not, in the same way that a singer does. When you realize that a singer is able to know what a note should sound like before they sing it, it's not very different to expect a guitarist to be able to do the same thing, at least with simple melodies. It also helps my students develop a keen listening ear to check that what they thought was in the music and what they thought they played sounds like what the music says it should sound like. Going back to the Folk themes for the moment, I have a practice sheet containing the same Folk theme in 6 different keys - this is a great way to help students understand key signatures, rather than learning the notes without really reading them. It is impossible for a beginner to learn the same piece with six different fingerings, so I can be sure they are reading it properly.
Which difficulties have the ensemble repertoire in relation to the soloist one?
Without a conductor, the biggest difficulty is that when a piece of music goes wrong, it is not obvious what has gone wrong - most ensemble music is provided in part-score, not full-score so as to minimize the number of page turns, and so the exact point of going wrong might not be clear without stopping, looking at the full score, and then trying it over again. I am sure many ensemble players know the feeling of hearing a mistake and not knowing whether it is their mistake or someone else's, and therefore not knowing what to do about it.
When playing solo music, it is usually fairly easy to get the rhythm to be correct, and fitting notes in between the beats is not hard when the thumb, for example, is playing the beats. In ensemble music, it is much harder to play off the beat if one is not playing on the beat as well. And this is why some ensemble music is very hard to do - if each part has a different rhythm, and different parts play notes at different times, it can be very hard to keep the music in step across the ensemble.
How to fight the possible boredom of studying at home alone without enjoy the other parts? Do you use recordings or MIDI files for help them?
You are right that it is not easy, or even enjoyable, to play ensemble music in isolation. Most ensemble music is monophonic - one note at a time - and so there is no sense of the chords and style of the piece. Here in the Hampshire Guitar Orchestra, I used MIDI files and recordings so that players can practice at home at the right speed and to make sure they do not (unknowingly) hesitate in the difficult sections. My players come from all over this area of the South of England, and so we can only expect to meet once every two weeks. It's very important that we don't waste that precious time on things that are particular to one player, and which could have been sorted out at home. We meet to enjoy the big sound we make, and to add music detail - something which MIDI files do not do without a lot of hard work making the files.
How do the British music conservatories and academies work the ensemble guitar subject?
Every College is different, and some of them seem to concentrate on solo technique, because this is probably how the student will earn a living after College. I find it very hard to answer this - I think every College would give you a different answer!
Which are the main problems with new people in group practice have you noticed more frequently? How do you fix them?
New people are often quite amazed by hearing a sound or a chord that they have not made all by themselves - it feels a bit like the difference between using a power tool for woodworking, compared to a hand tool. As a result, their ears are hearing things that are not on their copy of the music and it can be very confusing at first. Of course, the other problem is that bar number 93 might be very hard in one part and very easy in another, so sometimes new players lose their place all too easily. In the Hampshire Guitar Orchestra, I put rehearsal marks at the start of every phrase, and I encourage new players to read their part while listening to the overall sound of a MIDI file, so that they learn what each rehearsal mark sounds like. Then, if they lose their place, they can get back in at the next mark.
In your pedagogical writing, I think so, you leave clear that the ability to listen is one of the most valuable in learning. Can you give us some hints to improve this skill?
Being able to hear detail in the music is not the same skill as being able to make out speech when it is whispered. Someone who does not hear all the detail in the music is missing things that are quite easy to hear if you know what to listen for. I try to encourage people to listen to the bass line in pop songs and simple chamber music - often the bass moves in a way that is completely different to the tune, and hearing the music gain a new dimension is a great way to enjoy the music so much more. I suggest to my students that they listen to the chords in folk music and learn to hear when they change. This is no different to how someone might look at a house and see just a house, whereas a builder might look at the way the bricks are laid, the sizes of the windows, the way the roof joins the walls... One way to get an appreciation of music is to take a simple guitar piece in two parts (tune and bass), and to record the tune, and then play the bass along with it. When a guitarist plays in two parts, he quickly learns that a mistake in the tune is very obvious, but sometimes he has no appreciation of the bass line. Playing it on its own will often let the student see, for example, a rising bassline underneath a falling tune (contrary motion), and the start and end of the rising sequence will become much more visible. I know that I enjoy listening to all sorts of different music, because I am studying the construction of the piece, rather than just looking at what the finished piece sounds like. I am sure we have all heard a pop song that is performed by a group that wasn't the one who originally recorded it. Sometimes the group does a "cover" and tries to copy the original sound, but sometimes they come out with a completely new arrangement. And that's the interesting part - the tune is the same, but the song is different, and all because the music underneath the tune has changed!
How is the physical arrangement of the ensembles parts and instruments for you? Can you justify it?
There are 4 sizes of classical guitar in HAGO, the Hampshire Guitar Orchestra. We have 14 players, and in order to be able to play in the sort of venues we are often asked to play in, we choose to sit in two rows. Each row is curved. I sit the alto guitars (the highest pitch) on one end of the front row, and because of the curve, we play partly to the audience and partly across the front of the ensemble. As the altos have the tune, it makes it easier for everyone to hear the tune. Behind the altos we put the contra guitars, which are the deepest. The contra line usually plays mainly on the beat, and is easy to hear everywhere in the ensemble, so we want to make sure that the contra players are tightly in step with the altos. Then the top and bottom of the ensemble is tight, and hopefully the middle will fit in more easily.
In the different instruments of the plucked string ensemble (soprano, bass...) each one has its own characteristics. How do you do to take the full advantage? What specific features has those instruments different relate with standard guitar apart from tessitura?
Most of our guitars are cedar, but the alto guitars are nearly all spruce, and this gives them great carrying power. The shorter strings are very tight, but the top string is very bright indeed, so we tend not to use the alto guitars if we are playing slow, soft pieces, in the same way that a symphony orchestra does not use trumpets in the more gentle pieces it plays. We nearly always use the bass and contra guitars, though. The bass is a very agile instrument, and we have added a Tornavoz to each (a port inside the soundhole) to make the bottom resonance much more rich and powerful. The contra is a bit bigger still, but the heavy strings make it quite cumbersome to play. The bottom two strings are double wound, with a metal winding on top of a metal winding, to give the strings enough weight to go low in pitch but still be tight. In addition, the contra strings tend to buzz against the frets if they are played very quickly, so the contra parts tend to be slow. The human ear does not respond well to fast bass notes anyway, so it is a good solution. If we play music which has repeated sections, we often remove the contra part, or place it an octave higher, on the repeat, to give us a very different sound really easily.
You're in favor of composing or arranging for guitar ensemble of different types (Soprano, bass, etc) as they do in orchestras Niibori. How easy is learning the technique for people used to the prime guitar?
The bass guitar, which is 50mm longer than a normal guitar, is really easy to learn to play, and many of my players use the bass in one or more pieces. In fact during a concert, we have many more bass players than we have bass guitars, but actually most people are quite happy to practice the bass part at home on an ordinary guitar and just move straight across to the bass at rehearsal, when we pass the instruments round the room.
The contra has a bigger reach - it is 100mm longer than a classical guitar - and the strings need to played carefully in order not to buzz. For these guitars, my players practice their music on the actual guitar.
The alto is 120mm smaller than the normal guitar, and the strings are tighter too - the top string is about 25% tighter than on an ordinary guitar. Since the tone is not quite as mellow as a guitar, and the sustain isn't quite as long, we tend to play the alto high up the neck (to get the notes that exist only on the alto guitar). Here the neck is tiny, and it allows us to reach easily to the left and right of the four frets that we can normally reach. It means that we can play music with lots of incidental sharps and flats without changing position. For most of us, we find the tight strings quite hard work on the fingernails, so we tend to rehearse our fingerings on an ordinary guitar until we know the piece, and then move across to learn the actual finger positions needed. Although the alto is a lot smaller, the neck is a standard width, so it actually feels just like playing a guitar up above the 9th position, but without the thumb getting in the way!
So the surprising thing is that it's actually very easy to swap between instruments, and in a concert, the alto players probably play half our pieces on alto, and half on ordinary guitar, and can swap really easily.
It’s interesting, the student start playing music together soon. Is it possible to form ensemble with children who only know how to play open strings and just a few notes on first position? If so, what would be the ideal ensemble? Unison duplicates? Maybe Duos?
Yes, this is a good idea. Student/teacher duets are very good for getting learners to count the rhythm properly, and a teacher can normally play his guitar much louder than his students, so teaching a class like this works very well. In a student/teacher duet, quite complicated pieces can be played using just a few notes from the learner, and the learners love to be part of a big sound.
Is available this type of material for young learners? Can you tell us some specific material?
The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) publishes books of guitar ensembles called Music Medals. Each Medal is a level of achievement in ensemble playing, and the early books tend to combine the student with the teacher, whereas the more advanced books tend to have trios with parts at two or three different levels so a mixed ability group can enjoy a piece that challenges everyone equally.
Which repertoire do you specify recommend for the initial and intermediate level?
I have never regarded ensemble music as a way to progress with guitar - I think that progression comes with structured teaching of solo guitar. For me, guitar ensemble is all about recreation and fun, while helping to develop better listening skills. For that reason I would rather that the ensemble choose music that they enjoy. On the solo side of guitar playing, well, here in the UK we have two main examination boards, Trinity Guildhall and Associated Board. Each of them has a list of examination material at each of 8 levels. I don't always think examinations are a good thing, especially if someone is learning guitar as a relaxation and hobby, rather than with a specific purpose in mind. But the examination material includes lists of pieces. Sometimes a piece is in a book, and the book itself because a source of other teaching material. And this is the way I have built up a collection of music that I love to play and love to teach. Sometimes too, a piece will be in more than one book and the typesetting or fingering will be different, and this is a teaching point in its own right.
Do you have any advice for the ensemble player of any level?
The shortest piece of advice has to be "listen carefully", but a longer piece of advice would be "enjoy experimenting with changes in volume, tone and articulation, because in an ensemble, we can change the texture of a piece much more easily, and to a much larger extent, than is possible on a solo guitar. I think both pieces of advice point to the same thing "Enjoy hearing sounds coming from guitar that you cannot make on one guitar alone"