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Why Mixed Chamber Music?

Over the course of my career as a teacher, the class "Guitar Ensemble" has evolved. When I was first starting out, I had the students play in the familiar arrangements of guitar duos, trios and quartets. For a few years in the late 1980's, I got inspired to put them in a large conducted ensemble. We called it the University Guitarchestra. They sat in two rounded tiers, and performed (in tuxes) music I arranged for the ensemble. I was a reasonably good conductor, and still have my rosewood Mollard baton. But it didn't last.

The reason it didn't last is that to me, it's always been more important for the students to experience actual mixed chamber music (music with other instruments). And there simply wasn't time to do both. The benefits of mixed chamber music are many:

1) You learn how a singer breathes- perhaps the very essence of music-making. 

2) You learn how a string player draws the bow, how a wind player breathes, how a percussion players thinks about time, etc. 

3) You get exposed to composers whose music you might never otherwise play, such as Schubert, Vivaldi, Beaser, Milhaud, Tüür, Shankar, Machaut, Saariaho, Stravinsky, etc. 

4) You meet musicians outside your circle and so get pulled out of the "guitar ghetto"-a common conservatory/music department phenomenon. 

5) You get heard by other music faculty, as you are called upon to go into your partner's lesson, broadening your support base at the school and leading to a feeling of being more fully a part of the  musical community. 

All of these points add up to a richer musical experience. 

On the other side of the discussion is having guitar students play in the usual guitar duos, trios and quartets. I did it as an undergraduate, at first, and it was an important part of the learning curve. And I too have my first-year students do it. I need them to demonstrate certain basic skills before turning them loose in the musical community at large and avoid unnecessary embarrassment. What skills?

We guitarists spend a lot of time playing music by ourselves. It is way too easy to play rhythms incorrectly and not realize it, to stretch beats to allow for difficult movements, to flatten triplets into eighth notes, to unwittingly add a beat to the measure. Metronomes notwithstanding, rhythm is usually the first victim of sitting by yourself with your instrument. Chamber music requires excellent rhythm. If yours is incorrect, then your part won't fit your partner's part and the result will be a mash. So, first, can you play correct rhythms, in time?

Second is being able to play from a score while listening to the other part. This is a big challenge: it is quite different than focusing laser-like on your own part, and just hoping it all works out! The results are also quite different. So I have first semester students (who've had little or no prior ensemble experience) play in multi-guitar groups to hone these skills some and demonstrate an ability to play in time together, and play and listen at the same time. But then we move on.

By the second semester, its all mixed chamber music. Don't get me wrong: I appreciate the terrific repertoire out there for two guitars, and I do encourage it from time to time, as long as students are getting a healthy dose of mixed chamber music as well. (We do very little guitar quartet playing.) 

So what, you might ask, is wrong with all the multi-guitar ensemble playing? The answer is simple. Aside from missing out on the advantages listed above, there is the fact that guitarists have little to teach other guitarists. We tend to have the same or similar strengths and weaknesses. We bring nothing fresh and unfamiliar to the table to take the music to the next level. When I hear a student guitar quartet, I often hear the blind leading the blind. As the guitar is a percussive instrument, attacks need to be perfectly aligned. The players need to be fully weaned off of chord-rolling, and learn to play perfectly in time, and then do so in a musical (rubato) framework. A good guitar quartet, like a good string quartet, needs to rehearse some 8-10 hours/week, after fully preparing their parts. I've had a hard time finding students willing to invest this amount of time in it, and I'd rather push them in a different direction anyway.

So they accompany singers, flutists, clarinetists, violists, percussionists, trumpeters, cellists, recorder players, oboists, violinists. They are forced up a level, and do better prep, just because they do not want to be embarrassed at the first rehearsal. They have to realize that when a singer or wind player takes a breath, it is a physical experience, taking time to complete, and that, yes, the music will wait. And then later, when we are working on solo rep, I can refer to this experience to bring real musical breathing to their playing. They accompany a violinist and have to learn to hear the change of direction of the bow. Violinists, further, experienced in the major orchestral and string quartet repertoire as they tend to be, can bring a more refined sense of style to the table in the 19th century works. They'll understand exactly what articulation and phrasing is appropriate without thinking much about it, and wonder why the guitarists, on balance, don't. The guitarists are dragged up a notch or two, and play better as a result.

The rhetoric of classical music can't be learned by reading about it in books--it has to be played and heard to be understood. This is the most effective and direct way I have found to draw my students more fully into the world of classical music. They hear it, they follow suit and, by imitation, play with correct articulation and phrasing, dynamics and metric sensibility. And then, all those other benefits start to unfold: they are drawn into the broader musical community, they build more varied friendships and are better known by a wider faculty and so on.

And then, finally, the advantages for me: lots of fantastic music, a more varied sonic experience, interaction with more members of the musical community, the appreciation and respect of my colleagues for my interest in their students, and for constantly introducing them and their students to new and interesting repertoire, and finally, better audience turnouts, as members of all those other studios (and their families and friends) show up at our Ensemble concerts in addition to the usual guitar lovers.

Having the students play mixed chamber music leads to a situation I'd call win-win-win.

Chamber Music: Score Prep

Spotlight on Alumni: Adam Sarata