I’ve spent many odd moments of this week finishing an ensemble arrangement for the first of six East Lothian Showcase Concert* rehearsals, which falls this Friday. Ironically, I heard this piece on Radio 3’s Making Tracks on the way home from one of last year’s rehearsals. No, I don’t have the memory of an idiot savant (only one half of that) I hunted down the piece and converted it from saxophone quartet version to guitar ensemble.
Id like to go into arranging in greater depth later, but for now I shall describe how the East Lothian Guitar Ensemble comes together. As with other ensembles, invitations are extended to pupils who might benefit from such an experience. However, how does one decide who plays what? In an orchestra, the destiny of each player is predetermined. Trumpeters rarely play the harp part – unless they’ve been in the pub during the interval. In a guitar ensemble each part could, theoretically, be played by any player. The criterion is level of difficulty and there are a few ways to deal with this.
This approach is very straightforward. A four-part arrangement is ranked in order of difficulty and the group split into four streamed sections, equal in number. There can be complications regarding sound projection. For example, many of the younger players will have ¾ size or cheaper guitars. Some of the advanced players may have upgraded to a more expensive guitar, capable of producing more sound and they will play out with more confidence. Numbers may have to be adjusted to address this possibility.
In a piece where there is less contrast in the level of parts, each section contains a few seniors who act as audio beacons for younger players.
The Personal Approach
Pupils are given parts which suit their strengths e.g. those with keen ears are given the tune; good readers are given parts with rhythmic complexity or problems of extended range; those who are nifty movers are given more technically demanding parts; rockers are often given parts where the ability to hold down a steady and possibly repetitive rhythm is required – without becoming bored and losing focus or even self-esteem.
The last of these options suits situations where a performance is called for at short notice. The danger of playing to the strength of pupils is that they are not stretched. Pupils should have experience of many types of part and of the musical responsibilities of these parts in the piece as a whole. For this reason, I like to keep a log of the distribution of parts so that e.g. a good reader is not imprisoned on bass parts for ever. This log also proves to be very handy for more practical matters when concerts arrive more of which another day.
*The concert takes place in the Musselburgh Grammar School on Friday 16 March at 7:30 p.m.