The one time I was proud of my playing as a member of the guitar orchestra and the combined sound we produced was also the one instance that I had forgotten to bring equipment to video or audio record ourselves. The three pieces we played in the concert of 27th April 2018 were much easier than the repertoire of the two previous concerts. I felt in control. I felt like a contributing member of the ensemble. We started and ended at the same time, no extra noises. My only regret was that I did not record it, and we won’t be giving this concert again.
From the reaction of the audience (loud and instant applause after each piece and the prolonged applause at the end; individual compliments after the concert), I gather we didn’t do badly at all. What makes an excellent performance? The first clue, we had an effective rehearsal only four nights earlier.
On Monday 23rd April 2018, we met at the Yamaha Music School in Lexington, for our final rehearsal before the dress rehearsal and concert. The school gave us their ensemble room, studio 5, in the far end of the long hallway. The above photo was taken before the remaining three members had arrived. One member had injured his finger and couldn’t make any of the rehearsals for this concert before Jorge Caballero. For three of the members, it was to be their first performance in the First Lutheran Church in Boston and my second.
Promptly at 6:30 pm, our conductor, Robert Bekkers tapped his long white baton on his music stand, signalling our evening rehearsal to commence. By then we had tuned and warmed up individually, as several of us had arrived well before then. As usual, he began with technical exercises, getting us to play different notes on one string with four fingers on the left hand by alternating the index and ring fingers on the right hand.
In the small windowless studio, I was keenly aware of the close proximity to my neighbours. A sudden movement may cause the fragile stand to topple, taped sheet music to fly, and foot stool to fall. As usual, we all have to readjust when another person arrives. Because the three pieces have different number of parts (between three and six), we’re not always assigned the same part number and may risk sitting next to someone who plays a different part number in the next piece.
Playing in an ensemble forces us to be aware of our neighbours on both sides. We cannot ignore what they’re doing. At the same time, we have to pay attention to the conductor: cues to play a new passage, dynamics, and when to mute. Those of us accustomed to performing as soloists may have to get used to the presence of others. It requires an additional level of awareness and multi-tasking ability.
As guitar is a soft instrument, playing in a guitar orchestra fine-tunes our ears, so-to-speak. We really have to listen to each other and the group as a whole.
Personally, I like to sit next to someone who plays loud enough that I can hear without straining my ears. I often debate to myself whether it’s better to pretend to play and not make a mistake or actually play (loud enough for others to hear) and risk making a mistake.
Unlike the piano, playing a single note on the guitar requires the work of both hands. It also requires deciding where on the fret board to press, whereas there can only be one location for a single note on the piano. Anywhere else, that is, any other key on the piano will give a different pitch. This explains why sight-reading is challenging for guitarists. They have to make more decisions than pianists. As a pianist, I don’t understand why I occasionally get a buzz when I play a note on the guitar. It’s as though creating a buzz is a hit or miss, something I can’t predict or control. As mentioned in my first blog post about joining the guitar orchestra nearly two months before, eliminating extraneous buzzes is still a challenge.
Our fearless conductor started us with the shortest piece, Joropo, which was also the easiest piece. He then had us indicate rehearsal marks for the next piece by Domeniconi. When he asked me to play my solo part, I begged to be excused. I was not advanced enough to play consecutive sixteenth notes that required jumps in frets. As if he heard me, he boldly cut the passages from rehearsal mark G to I. Later I learned that he had to cut the length of our performance so as not to exceed the 20 minutes allocated to us. We were only a warm-up act, before the visiting artist from Peru.
After rehearsing these two pieces, we paused for a break which was longer than usual. It was long enough to get coffee and snacks, visit the restrooms, and explore the music school’s classrooms and facilities. Some of us talked to the staff, others just talked to each other. A break should be long enough to really feel like a new beginning. We returned to the studio refreshed to tackle the third and final piece.
Clarice Assad’s “Bluezillian” had a swing to it. Unlike the Beaser premiere in the previous concert, the bass was solid and strong. It gave the piece the necessary foundation for soloists to do their thing.
At the dress rehearsal, less than an hour before our concert, my neighbour Ian (pronounced “ion”) remarked that he didn’t hear a Bartok pizz from me. Feigning innocence, I asked, “Oh! Where is that?” I suspected it was the two measures that required my guitar part five to play louder than everyone else. He showed me how to pull the lowest string and snap it. He used the 12th fret of that E-string for the octave E. This was my chance to show off my Bartok pizzicato.
So what were the factors that determined a successful concert? Effective rehearsals. I have to say, our second rehearsal on Sunday 15th April sent all of us a message: study. And so we did.