From ukulele to guitar, joining a guitar orchestra

After playing the guitar, picking up the ukulele is dead easy. However, the other way around is not so easy. My first and last guitar ensemble experience in the summer of 1998 brought back sweet memories of playing Gaspar Sanz at an annual guitar festival in West Dean, England. If I could do it then, surely I can do it now.

“What sounds better than a guitar?”

“Two guitars.”

“What sounds better than two?”

“Three” and so on.

A guitar orchestra is a larger version of a guitar quartet, with four parts, each guitarist playing one part. It’s possible to arrange the parts by skill level or registers or both. Ideally, it would be nice to allow guitarists of different skill levels to play together.

To join the orchestra here in Boston, I asked the conductor which part was the easiest. Typically it’s the lowest register, or part four, in first position (first three frets). As he was short on guitarists for part four, he assigned it to me.

Taking the path of least resistance, I insisted on using tablature rather trying to figure out which string, which fret from the notes. Here is a short chronicle of my journey to joining the Boston Guitar Orchestra.

The first time I looked at the score of “Pictures at an Exhibition” I froze. The notes are not confined to the first three frets! I’d have to traverse up the neck to unknown territory. There are numbers to do with frets,  strings, fingers on the left hand and right hand. It’s a four-dimenstional matrix, nothing like the one-to-one correspondence of the piano keyboard!

Besides the changes in register, there are changes in time signature (5/4 to 6/4 to 5/4 etc) , key signature, meter, tempo, dynamics, accidentals, and technique like sul ponte that I’m not familiar with. Not that I would complain if I were to play the score on the piano but the guitar is another matter.

On my first attempt, I struggled to get used to the bigger instrument. It’s twice the size of my XS soprano ukulele. Tuning was a challenge, for the clip-on tuner seemed a million miles away. Somehow, my four right fingers fit nicely on the four strings of the ukulele but the extra two strings of the guitar required that I think hard about how to distribute my four fingers on six strings. I had to look at my right hand to be sure I was playing the correct strings. Often I got lost “between the strings” so-to-speak.

Pressing the strings on the frets was a challenge for my left fingers. The guitar strings are thicker than the ukulele. Creating a nice sounding tone that didn’t buzz or stop was a task I was never confronted with on the ukulele or the piano. You simply press and play. There was no need to find the right spot on the fret to make it sound smooth or avoid interference with another string.

My right hand ached after the first attempt. I was using my pinky as an anchor, and I suspected something was not right. I begged for private coaching.

I told myself that I’d do my best to support the orchestra because it needed me. If additional guitarists were to join later, then I could at least “hide” and play softly. Like any musical piece, daily practice through repetition does lead to improvement. I just needed to press on.

At the first rehearsal, I tried to hide my score. Everyone else was reading from notes. It was a cop out to read from tabs. But then, I’m not a guitarist. I’m a pianist who also plays the ukulele. I don’t have nails. I’m probably the only person without long nails. I can’t afford to have nails as a pianist.

Things did get better.

A guitar major at the conservatory joined us for the last rehearsals. I recorded our premiere for review purposes and shared the video with the members of the orchestra. Incidentally, I was the only female on stage that evening.

I daresay, if I, who haven’t touched the guitar for twenty years, can do it, there must be others out there who definitely can do it and do it better. I can’t wait for the next concert — premiere of Robert Beaser’s Chaconne at the New England Guitar Ensemble Festival (NEGEF) at the Longy School of Music on Sunday 18th March.


Author: BLOGmaiden

As one of the earliest bloggers (since 1999), I enjoy meeting people who embrace "out-of-the-box" thinking and fear not the unknown. I believe in collaboration for sustainability because it increases stakeholder value.

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