Auditioning Guitarists for School Ensembles

altIt is that time of year again.  When students of all ages and instruments line-up outside of studios and classrooms in hopes of landing a chair in their favorite school ensemble.  Nerves are kicking in as each student crams in some last minute practicing and teachers begin to stress over finding the right student for each chair in their ensemble. 

While many educators have at least some knowledge of the guitar and what to look for when auditioning guitarists for their ensembles, many do not.  Though it is impractical to expect teachers to have a thorough knowledge of the guitar, with even a basic understanding of the instrument educators will be better prepared to judge the abilities of their guitar students.  This article will help teachers gain an understanding of what to look for in the areas of Technique, Fretboard Knowledge, Accompanying, Soloing and Sight-Reading, as well as how to rank students based on their ability in each and all of these categories. 



There are two areas of technique to watch for when auditioning guitar players, the left (fretting) hand and the right (picking) hand. 

When judging left hand technique, watch for the placement of the thumb and fingers in relation to the fingerboard.  The thumb should be placed behind the neck in a vertical position.  If the student has their thumb curled over the top of the neck, or have it in a horizontal position behind the neck, these are signs of poor technique.  Also, watch to see if the student is using their pinky finger when playing, and how far their fingers are lifting off of the strings between each note.  It is often a sign of a weaker player when they lift their fingers more than a half inch off of the strings, or never use their pinky finger while playing.

With the right hand there are a few things to watch out for, the first being, are the students using a pick or their fingers?  If they are using a pick, check to see if they are holding on to any part of the guitar as they pick.  This can be a sign of poor right hand technique, and may prevent the student from playing at faster tempos or executing difficult picking passages.  If the student is using their right-hand fingers to play, check to see if they are using just their thumb, one or two fingers or all of the above.  A good fingerstyle guitarist should be using their thumb on the lower three strings and their fingers on the top three.  If they are only using one or two fingers in their right hand, this may cause problems when trying to play fast or complicated phrases or pieces. 

Knowledge of the Neck

There are two areas in which to test a guitarist’s knowledge of the neck, scales and the ability to name notes across the fingerboard.

The first thing to keep in mind when testing students on their scale knowledge is that there are literally dozens of ways to finger any scale or mode on the guitar.  Because of this, it is often common to ask a student to play a scale in two or more positions of the neck. For instance, if a student plays a G major scale starting on the 6th string, you might want to ask them if they can play the same scale starting on the 5th string.  The more fingering’s a student knows for each scale the more advanced of a player they tend to be.  As well, where most other instruments begin by learning the major and minor scales, guitarists tend to learn the pentatonic/blues scales first, then the major and minor scales.  It is a good idea to start by asking the student to play a blues or pentatonic scale in a few keys, then move on to the major and minor scales and their modes.  Usually the less experienced guitarists will not be able to play more than the pentatonic scale, while the more advanced players will be able to play at least the major and minor scales, and maybe one or more modes of these scales as well.

While most other instrumentalists have to be aware of what notes they are playing in order to make music, guitarists tend to rely on the geometric nature of the instrument and can learn to play without ever knowing what notes they are sounding.  It is always good to test this in an audition, especially at the high school level.  One way to figure out where a student stands with their knowledge of notes is to ask them to play x amount of y note. For example ask the student to play 3 different C’s and see how long it takes them to figure this out.  For the more advances students this will only take a matter of seconds, for the weaker students they might just stare at you and ask what a C is, don’t be surprised this can be quite common in younger, more inexperienced guitarists.

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