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Classical music enthusiasts know the orchestra well, a staple in music education and the arts, with its diverse instruments, and extensive repertoire across eras and styles. In the past two decades, a new phenomenon emerged: the classical guitar orchestra championed by urban guitar associations, like the Austin Classical Guitar Society. 

Initially, music directors resisted, fearing guitar programs might divert students from pre-existing ensembles. However, time has shown that these concerns were unfounded. Anecdotal evidence and statistics demonstrated that guitar classes increased music program enrollment, rather than diminishing existing ensembles. 

Why the guitar orchestra? How does it operate, what's its music, and who benefits? 

The guitar orchestra's fascination lies in its need for creative solutions. Unlike traditional orchestras with a wide timbral range and sound attributes, the guitar orchestra faces larger limitations in relation to these elements. 

The guitar sound envelope has instant attack and rapid sound decay, unlike bowed instruments, for example, which can execute a gradual approach and extended sustain. While these limitations might appear as reasons to abstain from engaging in guitar orchestra music, they actually enhance its appeal. 

Just as Composer Igor Stravinsky said: “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.” 

Now, let's proceed with a more in-depth exploration of the guitar orchestra and its elements before delving into its artistic and philosophical dimensions. 

Is it just a bunch of guitar yahoos strumming away till somebody yells 'uncle'? In the classical setting, the short answer is no! 

The long answer: there isn't just one type of guitar used in the group, strumming is very rarely used, and there's actually a very limited amount of repertoire as of now compared to a traditional orchestra. 

Let's start with the first point.

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Instrumentation

The most common makeup of a Classical Guitar Orchestra in North America can consist of:

1. The standard 6-string classical guitar

This is the instrument people are most familiar with and that makes up the majority of the instruments in the ensemble. It has 6-strings and is known for its warm tone and ability to play solo melodies or contrapuntal music. 

While in the orchestra setting, the textures are often kept much simpler than in solo music to facilitate a clearer sound and allow for wider range in pitch and volume.

2. The bass guitar (either the guitarrón or a nylon-string acoustic)

With their lower register, these larger instruments add depth but are often scarce. This is partly because few individuals own them, typically relying on limited supplies from educational institutions. 

The guitarrón is traditionally from the famous Mexican ensembles known as Mariachi and has a louder sound to complement the standard classical guitar. With its six strings, fretless fingerboard, and rotund shape, it actually served as the inspiration for the acoustic 4-string bass guitar's creation which also appears in the orchestra. 

These beautiful instruments broaden the range of the orchestra and add a new aesthetic not often seen in the classical guitar world. 

3. The requinto guitar

Just like a traditional orchestra has high register instruments like violins and piccolos, the requinto similarly lends new timbres to the guitar orchestra. Its bright, piercing sound further extends the range of the ensemble. 

It is most popular in Latin America and used in a variety of musical styles, and can also be found in Spain. Body sizes vary, and it can now be substituted with a guitalele, or a soprano guitar. This being said, there are multiple possibilities when it comes to instrumentation in the guitar orchestra as these are not the only guitar-like instruments that can be used. 

Other instruments found in guitar orchestras are mandolins, terz guitar, 7, 8 or even 12-string guitars, and even occasionally the electric guitar/bass. It all depends on the repertoire being performed and the tastes of the group/conductor.

Finally, the conductor cannot be forgotten!

Conductors in large ensembles, including guitar orchestras, serve a vital role. Given the guitar's rapid attack, synchronization is crucial to prevent any initial disarray (the 'popcorn' effect.) Balancing articulation, sound, and color requires an "outer ear" to accentuate subtle musical elements that might be lost amidst the guitars' homogeneous sound.

Though contemporary perspectives challenge the traditional hierarchical role of conductors, the classical guitar world often adopts a collaborative approach. Many guitar orchestra conductors are themselves guitarists, fostering a sense of camaraderie and shared artistic values.

Southwest Guitar Symposium Guitar Orchestra, directed by Matthew dunne
Southwest Guitar Symposium Guitar Orchestra, directed by Matthew dunne

History

The guitar orchestra's development is a recent phenomenon rooted in various historical contexts. Prior to the 19th century, the guitar was primarily an accompanying instrument, seen alongside predecessors in ensemble and chamber music. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the lute was part of ensembles with other stringed and plucked instruments, occasionally including wind instruments. 

During the baroque era, the 5-course guitar often accompanied dances with percussion instruments. Subsequently, guitar ensembles of different sizes emerged, along with relevant compositions. In essence, the guitar's role in ensembles isn't novel; what's new is the emergence of the guitar orchestra. 

My personal experience saw its beginnings in select educational settings and community groups of passionate guitarists aiming to build skills and connections. Over time, the guitar orchestra's purpose and the quality of players and repertoire have evolved. It gained popularity around the early 2010s in universities, guitar societies, and secondary education. Today, guitar orchestras exist worldwide, each with its unique instrumentation and repertoire.

Austin Classical Guitar Youth Orchestra, led by Joe Williams, at the premiere for my piece Magpie Lullaby

Repertoire

The repertoire of a guitar orchestra is still quite limited and consists of original compositions or arrangements of both popular music and academic music (contemporary and classical.) The amount of parts can vary depending on what repertoire is being performed. For example, a piece originally scored for guitar quartet can be split between 4 groups in a guitar orchestra. Or, if the music was composed specifically for guitar orchestra, it can span up to 8 parts or more!

Here are some examples:

1. Classical Arrangements 

With options of a 6-voice guitar orchestra or an expanded orchestra including contra-bass and requinto, Alan Hirsh's arrangement of selections from Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition provides an opportunity for guitarists to play a classic of the Romantic repertoire.

2. Contemporary Compositions

Austin Classical Guitar's Artistic Director and Composer in Residence, Joe Williams II wrote a uniquely fascinating composition for the 2016 Texas Guitar Conference titled Bears. Williams is known for his innovative use of extended techniques and interplay of different timbres on the guitar in his highly programmatic works.

3. Smaller Ensemble Works

tonebase's very own Ashley Lucero composed a guitar quartet for the 2018 Keene Valley Guitarist Composer Workshop titled "Magpie Lullaby" later revised and performed by the Austin Classical Guitar Youth Orchestra in 2019. It has since been performed by guitar orchestras such as SUNY Fredonia Guitar Orchestra and UCLA Guitar Orchestra featuring playful rhythms and contrasting timbres.

4. Popular Music Arrangements

Guitarist and arranger Raúl de Frutos created an arrangement for 4 guitars and an optional bass part of John Williams' Main Theme for Star Wars. This is an extremely popular work that can be enjoyed easily by both performers and audience. These are only a few examples; see a list of some more popular works performed by guitar orchestras:

Why Guitar Orchestra?

The inclusion of guitar orchestra in both professional and educational settings offers benefits not often available to classical guitarists.

1. Large ensemble experience

Playing in small ensembles demands its own mastery; each part is individually developed, akin to solo playing. Parts are then combined and require close listening as a group. In an orchestra, you refine your part collectively, making decisions on fingerings, slurs, timbre, and musical choices as a group within a larger ensemble. Cooperation and conductor mediation become essential skills.

2. New repertoire

Playing music with more than four parts is a unique challenge, demanding precise synchronization. A director is crucial for ensuring correct execution of the larger group's intentions. Exploring new music, particularly compositions for the orchestra, enhances musicality and technical abilities.

3. Performance skills

Playing in a group of instrumentalists allows individuals to build confidence and the opportunities to perform in concert halls more fit for larger groups. Being a part of the orchestra can also help a guitarist prepare for playing concertos with traditional orchestras.

Conclusion

The classical guitar orchestra has gained prominence in both professional and educational settings over the past decade. Advocates have introduced successful guitar programs in music education, dispelling initial concerns about their impact on other ensembles. It creatively harnesses the guitar's unique attributes to craft distinctive music and boasts a diverse instrumentation.

In summary, the guitar orchestra enhances music education and performance by surmounting limitations, fostering collaboration, and diversifying repertoire, making it a valuable addition to classical music.

Are you looking to improve on the classical guitar?

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Click here to sign up for a free 14 day trial, and see for yourself how tonebase can take your classical guitar performance and technique to the next level.

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