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The New Frontier, Part Three:

Creating an Ensemble Experience in Private Lessons


by Donald Miller

It is an almost universally accepted fact that students who play in an ensemble are much better readers than those who do not. Yet how can students or teachers gain ensemble experience when there is no local ensemble to perform with? The content of this article addresses this unique problem.

To the private instructor:
If you teach studio guitar, probably the majority of your students have little or no ensemble playing experience. The following suggestions are made to create an ensemble experience for your students when there is no ensemble to perform with.

If the student is a beginning guitarist and needs to become familiar with Level 1 notation, I would suggest the following materials:

- Mastering the Guitar 1A by William Bay and Mike Christiansen (MB99553)
- Donald Miller Guitar Ensemble Series - Choose one of the six books
- Donald Miller Guitar Ensemble Series - 2CD Set (MB20335CD)

Note: All six books (60 arrangements) are recorded on this 2-CD set. All of the parts are performed simultaneously.

Sample lessons and Teaching Strategies

Beginning Lessons: Let's assume the student receives one lesson per week and is a Level 1 beginning guitarist who plays rather well, but is essentially a non-reader. From the Guitar Ensemble Series you (as the teacher) have chosen to use Music of the Masters (MB98303) and your student will learn "Finlandia" by Jean Sibelius for the first lesson.

Student Assignment: For your first lesson, practice the entire Gtr. 1 part slowly until you are comfortable and familiar with the notes. If necessary, call the letter names of the notes out loud while playing. Once the notes have been memorized, stop calling the note names out loud. Learn the meaning of the various musical signs or instructions:
Majestic Ø = 96 - indicates how fast the piece is to be played.
mf - mezzo forte (medium loud) how loud the work is played; and other terms such as poco rit. and tempo primo. Any accidentals, rhythms, or terminology not familiar to you should be discussed with your teacher and explained to you thoroughly.

Example 1 - Guitar 1

To the Student:
Play the Guitar 1 part with the CD recording at the speed of the recorded work. If you can't play the part at the correct tempo (speed), keep practicing until you can. Playing your assigned part along with the recording creates an ensemble experience for you because all of the parts are being played at the same time. More importantly, if you make a mistake, you cannot stop to correct the error but must continue reading your part as you would if you were performing with a live ensemble.

One of the most important assets the ensemble experience imparts to a student is the ability to continue to perform a part even if a mistake is made, as you don't have the luxury of being able to stop to correct errors. Depending on the ability of the student, it should be possible to play each guitar part along with the CD within one or two lessons. Players with much more experience can be assigned more than one part per lesson.

Listen to an example

Subsequent lessons:
The same sequence used for learning Gtr. Part 1 should now be used for learning Gtr. Parts 2, 3, and 4.
1. Practice each part slowly until you are familiar with the notes.
2. If necessary, call the letter names of the notes out loud while playing the part. (This technique is an aide to memorization.).
3. Learn the meaning of all terms and musical signs.
4. Play the part at the speed of the example recorded on the CD.

Note: It is important to perform all of the guitar parts, especially Gtr. 4.
Example 2 - Guitar 4

Because of the ledger lines, Gtr. 4 will present more of a challenge. By learning all four parts, the student becomes familiar with all of the notes in first position, on all six strings.

One of the most important goals for any guitarist is to play a composition and interpret the work in the style the composer intended the work be performed. In doing so, you honor the composer and more importantly, you become a literate guitarist. Our next sessions will be concerned with this all important facet of performance - practice and style. Until next time, I hope you enjoy playing along with the sound bite included with this article.

          Don Miller





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