Tips for Guitar Ensemble

by Alan Hirsh
If you’re currently involved in a guitar ensemble within your community, here are some helpful tips to make your experience better.

Use Rest Stroke

An ensemble that’s able to perform with volume and full-bodied tone has a great deal of expressive potential.   Many ensemble parts consist of single lines as in melodies, counter-melodies, and bass lines.  Some guitarists may be inclined to play these with free stroke, especially if they’re more accustomed to solo playing.  While free stroke is definitely needed for passages with arpeggios or 2-, 3-, or 4-note chords, it’s not so effective on single-lines.  The best technique for this is Rest stroke, where the finger firmly strokes in a somewhat downward and weighted manner.

pre-read and Clarify your challenges

Many guitar ensemble parts aren’t adequately edited, so sometimes you may have to make fingering decisions on your own.  When faced with challenging passages, always clarify the problem(s) during pre-reading, rather than allowing mistakes and confusion in your practice.

Rhythm Issues
For rhythm issues, clarify by counting aloud and clapping before playing. If you’re unsure how to realize a rhythm, ask your director early on for help.  Misinterpreted rhythms left unchecked can create problems with others players around you.
Right-hand technical Issues
For challenging right-hand passages, you may need to first clarify the fingering where none is indicated. For example, a difficult scale passages may become untangled by simply determining the correct lead right-hand finger.  Consider:

The first example is “bad” because leading with m creates awkward string crossings between (1) and (2) which aren’t natural to the hand’s finger order.   The second example is preferred since string crossings between (1) and (2) follow the natural order of your fingers.

Left-hand technical issues
For a passage involving upper-position notes, be sure to choose a left-hand fingering which allows stable hand positioning.  For example, the following passage played only on (1) forces awkward and difficult left-hand jumping from fret to fret:

You may initially want to play it this way, especially if you’re not used to thinking about notes in higher positions …but re-fingered in Position V, the passage becomes easily managed—no “jumping:”  If you’re unsure how to re-finger a passage like this, ask your director.

Steady the BEat

A common problem with some ensembles is tempo rushing—a piece begins slowly and finishes much faster from where it started. To develop tempo steadiness, always practice on your own with a metronome.   Choose a slow and manageable tempo, one that accurately aligns the metronome’s “tic” with your beats.   Initially the “tic” may be distracting, so apply it to something simple, like playing a scale or an arpeggio.  When more comfortable, use it when practicing your part, applying it one section or phrase at a time.  Your director will most likely work on tempo steadiness, but since most rehearsals are only a few hours a week, it’s important to develop this skill on your own.

Be Prepared

Your director says this all the time—”practice and prepare!”  At the risk of nagging, it needs to be underscored.   Realize that the purpose of rehearsing in a group is not to learn your part, but to learn how your part fits in with everyone else’s.  So between rehearsals,  pre-read, clarify, and practice any challenges (as described above).  In addition, come to rehearsals well organized—your music in a binder and pencil inside.

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