Classical Guitar Orchestras: Another view II (Reloaded)

Its been a long ride for Guitar Orchestras. Why focus on them now?

It has been a while. During this time, I have been fortunate to give a well attended lecture at the GFA Convention, visit this small event called the World Cup in Brazil, and while in Sao Paulo, attend the largest classical music camp in South America, the Festival do Inverno do Campos de Jordao. This time, instead of continuing with the article series envisioned for this outlet, this article will again focus on the last topic: Guitar Orchestras. The intense reactions of guitar orchestra enthusiasts deemed necessary an additional document to revisit some of the things that happened since its publication.

The Outrage:

Warranted or not, the article ignited the zeal of the guitar orchestra enthusiasts, some of whom took the article as a direct offense to their ensembles and their lives. Regardless of names, lets state that the most avid criticism came from the leaders of established ensembles with selective membership.  Responses were in the form of Youtube links used as proof of the musical capacity of the ensemble, as well as some disproportionate personal attacks, which we will disregard. After all, we believe in democracy.

The Scope:

It is important to stress that the previous article presented an alternate view of the effectiveness of using these guitar ensembles as a growth strategy for the instrument as a whole. At no point, regardless of the limitations listed, did the article put into question the existence of the guitar ensembles per se.  To do so would be to condemn similar ensembles in Mandolin, Brass, and other groups of similar instruments. It was not the intention of the prior article to belittle the Art form, and for that we do apologize, although we stand by each of our assessments regarding the artistic characteristics of these formations.

Much of the discussions and experiences I have had over the last weeks have allowed me to see how guitar groups provide an introductory ensemble experience to their members, with the goal not centered in creating professional performers but in creating a sense of community. This is a commendable endeavor, although not directly related to the perpetuation of classical music as an art form.

However, many failed to see that the existence or not of guitar ensembles was not the scope of the article. One would hardly conceive of Ukulelists actively organizing with grandiose plans to push Ukulele orchestras (which exist) as part of the after-school curriculum, would they? What really motivates guitar leaders to do so, specially in the United States?

One plausible explanation is, taking the ukulele as an example, that other instrumentalists as a group have much less pressure to cover supply. Lets understand. Every month of May, hundreds if not thousands of guitarists graduate from Bachelors, Masters and Doctoral programs to an ever-reduced pool of job opportunities. Might this situation be connected to the sudden need to tap into every K12 School in order to legitimize the degree to which this profession (the guitar profession) has expanded? Mandolinists, Ukulelists and other instrumentalists have only a handful of places (if any) where one can obtain a professional Mandolin or Ukulele degree, and thus, the number of ‘professionals’ to cover the demand for that instrument is lower.
In two words: Its SUSTAINABLE.

Where is the guitar? Concert opportunities and university professorships have stagnated or reduced over the past 20 years for an exponentially growing number of guitarists. The artistic fees of even the top artists is at an all time low and there are more substitutes than ever for even the most ‘successful’ acts. There is a recent Article by Overgrown Path that puts it simple, and which (with a few edits) fits perfectly the guitar situation:

“Classical [Guitar] is one of the glories of our civilization, but it is not exempt from the fundamental law of economics which states that when supply of a commodity outstrips demand, the value – both real and perceived – falls.

Without value an art form has no future; so when will the classical [guitar] industry wake up and start tackling the problem of oversupply?” 

The outcome of an exponential expansion of guitar orchestras is the potential creation of demand, and the certain creation of supply. Reach your own conclusions.

The “unspoken” reactions:

However, the first article did more than just piss people off. During the GFA Convention, previous GFA Competition finalists, competition winners, established university guitar professors, colleagues, and guitarists from different ages and backgrounds approached me to agree (yes, AGREE) with every point made. That alone deserves a follow up article if it weren’t that in 100% of the cases, they requested their names stay in anonymity, and so they will.

Why would this happen? Maybe because the community is under such pressure, that any outspoken opinion against the ‘guitar zeitgeist’ plays against the already limited chances each of these individuals has to make their musical dreams come true. We are not talking about Red Tape or Censorship, but an ‘unspoken’ rule to set aside anyone who does not conform to the tacit norms and beliefs of the community, whichever they may be.

Nowadays, those beliefs take the form of 100 kids playing rock-like tunes with guitar orchestras in after school programs. They dream of an America covered with guitars, with hundreds of thousands of clients (excuse me, students) buying guitars, attending concerts, and buying CD’s. None of the other areas of development in the classical guitar (Marketing, Cash Prize amount of competitions, Publicity, Institutionalism, Self Governance, etc) have been pushed as much as guitar orchestras in the last 10 years. They are sure this is the way. They are sure this is the future, and that’s why they concentrate their efforts almost exclusively on the idea of ‘guitars in schools’. What if they are wrong?  What is the opportunity cost of putting all our efforts as a community to build guitar orchestras?

That’s where this blog comes in, not to create controversy, but to challenge some things we take for granted in the guitar community. If they are solid propositions, then putting them into question will only strengthen the need for such initiatives.

The next articles in this blog will explore potential alternate areas of development that may shed light on other areas of development for the community as a whole.

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3 Responses

  1. Colin Tommis says:

    hello Alvaro,

    well done – a measured response, although I think it contains a false conclusion. Yes, the over supply is a serious issue. For a long time we in the UK have been advising colleges to set up courses on how to teach, because we all know that a livelihood as a professional player is pretty well unthinkable. Go on most web sites of aspiring artists, regardless of their ability, and see how seldom they perform. The playing standards rise, the opportunities fall, and the world’s great players have to play for a less than justified financial reward. Colleges are quick to bank the tuition fees, and slower to see the oncoming cliff face which their graduates will fall from. At a professional level therefore, there is a serious problem, if not a crisis. If it is happening in the UK and the USA, it is happening the world over. I think it is true of orchestral players too…..there are many wonderful under employed orchestral musicians in the UK. The college machine produces new blood faster than the old blood dies off.

    But I do not believe this is what motivates people to move in the direction of guitar ensemble activity. Those of us who move in such circles have a more altruistic agenda. The benefits have been previously outlined – no need to regurgitate. I don’t have hundreds but maybe 15 “kids playing rock-like tunes with guitar orchestras in after school programs”. I would never claim that getting these students engaged will produce the same rewards as a youth orchestra playing art music – but there is an intrinsic reward from helping people discover the instrument, discover music and discover themselves. It may for some, lead to an appetite for further disciplined study and they may start to move towards the sort of ensemble which is interested in original music for the medium. And yes of course it pays a few pennies to the tutors. But ask 99% of ensemble conductors and they will tell you the reward is educational/musical and not financial.

    You then seem to argue that the cul de sac of ensemble has been chased at the expense of developing other facets. You cite: (Marketing, Cash Prize amount of competitions, Publicity, Institutionalism, Self Governance, etc) …but I am a little unclear what the import is. If you would be good enough to explain and enlarge a little, maybe discussion will follow.

    I think the debate is a healthy one and if it excites passionate advocates on whichever side of the fence they sit, then enlightenment can surely follow. Thank you for your considered contribution.

    • marco says:

      The world becomes stupid generally. And…. sorry!! especially in the US and UE. I’m too lazy to explain this (and my english is too poor) but…. think by yourself. I’m a guitarist, teacher and arranger from Poland. I have a lot of talented boys and girls in my musical school but – it’s simply! – I realize that they will be rather a very good public for me (us) as a guitarists. And it’s OK !!!! As a teacher I teach rather an EDUCATED consumer of music than “artist”. And THEY are our (“classical-artist-guitarist”) hope. They will buy our CD’s, buy tickets to our concerts, send their children to my (expensive) lesson and so on… If participation in guitar orchestra, guitar ensemble with other instruments (it’s a standard in my school) helps them to obtain enjoy in music (note: I don’t say “guitar” music!!) – that’s great!!! Why? Because without conscious consumer of our art we are nothing. And our discussions are objectless… If you don’t teach people reading, Noble Prise in literature makes no sense…

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