Classical Guitar Orchestras: A Different View
The Guitar Foundation of America conference and convention begins today. Considered by many guitarists as the ultimate panacea for guitar stardom, this institution has recently embarked with full force to champion guitar education through the creation of guitar orchestras. These ensembles have taken the guitar world by storm and it seems no day goes by without a new orchestra being formed somewhere in the guitar landscape. The promises are many, and their supporters are fervent believers that this is the future of the guitar. Could this be?
My experience as a musician in the national youth choir and in the national youth orchestras of Peru puts me in a privileged position to compare and contrast guitar orchestras with other music ensembles. Therefore, I would like to reflect on some the main issues championed by guitar orchestra promoters:
A viable ensemble alternative
Earlier this month I spoke with one of the biggest advocates of guitar orchestras in the United States. The main argument in favor of the ensembles was the ability to “create the same experience as band/choir/traditional orchestras to kids”. I immediately thought:How so? The main difference between a guitar orchestra and other ensembles is sophistication. From the purely musical standpoint, a classical orchestra or choir requires the participants to develop a much more sensitive ear to identify the colors, timbres and dynamics of a myriad of instruments. For example, a trumpet player must be careful not to overshadow the woodwinds. A choir member must be careful to balance the ensemble in the different voices and soloists. How can a group of 20-50 instruments with identical volume, range, tuning, timbre, colors and key signature convey the same musical or educational experience? By sheer osmosis, a classical orchestra member will be acquainted with other forms of notation and transposed instruments, something all but impossible with the current design of guitar orchestras or ensembles.
Repertoire and Conductors
A corollary to the problem above is the historical and artistic value of the guitar orchestra repertoire and its conductors. If guitar ensembles pretend to provide a viable alternative to choirs, bands, or classical orchestras, wouldn’t it be important for the students to learn the traits of ensemble playing from people trained in the subject? Perhaps this is a goal for many ensembles, but for now the musical education and conductor responsibilities for the ensembles fall upon guitarists who, in spite of doing the best they can, are almost always never trained to properly conduct an ensemble, coordinate rehearsals, and lead students to meaningful artistic creation.
Further, the repertoire of the great majority of guitar ensembles provides substandard musical education to the students. Classical orchestras and choirs have centuries of tradition with pieces by the greatest composers in history specifically composed for these ensembles. As much as I value the brave work of many guitar composers who write for guitar ensembles, can their pieces convey the same cultural value to Beethoven symphonies or choral motets or madrigals? The study of the masterpieces of the classical repertoire not only provides a much more sophisticated musical experience but also exposes other masterworks of literature, drama and art to the students.
Any guitar ensemble leader would agree that the greatest works in the history of classical music were not composed for guitar. If so, how conducive is guitar ensemble education to appreciate the masterworks of the above mentioned composers? How many students have discovered a Mahler Symphony, or an opera by Wagner by attending guitar orchestra? In other words, can guitar ensembles be a bridge to present the classical music art form to guitar students? My experience in both settings leads me to conclude that the cultural experience in guitar ensembles is, at best, very limited. Learning to appreciate classical music by way of transcriptions of some simple pieces (mostly Spanish themed) and original works by guitar composers is a perfunctory observation of an otherwise much richer and deep art form.
It creates audiences
Perhaps the main non-musical consideration in favor of large guitar ensembles is the concept that the demographic explosion of guitar orchestras will create audiences for the guitar world. That was the very argument that one of the leading promoters of guitar orchestras gave me some months ago. The idea is simple: the more people playing ‘classical’ guitar, the more audiences we’ll have in guitar concerts. In this regard, guitar orchestras seem to solve two problems at the same time: they provide a forum for the countless students who will not become soloists nor go to university studies and opens up job possibilities for the many guitarists who cannot find university positions nor performance opportunities.
However, what guitar orchestra promoters tacitly acknowledge with these objectives is that the only way to become an audience member for guitar concerts is to play the guitar. This proposition is dangerous for it effectively discourages creative marketing efforts to gain general audiences and oversimplifies the complex situation that the guitar community faces today. If the current situation of many guitar organizations (including those that promote these ensembles) is any barometer of the effectiveness of this strategy, it seems that we need more than guitar orchestras to create a sustainable environment. In spite of a handful of outliers, guitar societies and festivals are leaner than ever due to the increased competition, and the artistic fees of all guitarists have stagnated or decreased substantially, even for “established” guitarists.
The analysis above evinces that the recent proliferation of guitar orchestras around the world is product of the over-saturation of the guitar market, which results in an attempt to scale the student-teacher revenue stream established in past generations. These practices perpetuate the tacit conflict of interest of guitar teachers: to persuade their students into competitions and university studies regardless of individual aptitude, talent or projection. In many cases, the low musical standards that guitar orchestras demand makes these formations the perfect format to exponentially expand these practices.
This would be a good explanation for the appearance of ‘guitar orchestra centered’ conferences and adjudication events. Supporters of these events argue that such practices promote leadership, cohesiveness and musicianship. Doesn’t it make sense that it also creates customers for strings, guitars, master classes, CD’s and guitar lessons? If this is the case, such expansion of guitar orchestras would result in an even deeper over-saturation of guitar students for an ever diminishing number of job opportunities, making the landscape more and more difficult for everyone.
However, regardless of any facts or analysis guitar orchestras are here to stay and their effect will only be seen years from now. They clearly have some tacit benefits like leadership or empowerment, which a myriad of other forms of collaborative work can provide. The most important thing is: what do you think? Only time will tell.