Solo and Ensemble Performance, Technique,
and Musical Structure
D. L. Stieg

For singers and instrumentalists who play monophonic (one note at a time) instruments, there are two types of musical performance – solo and ensemble. Solo performance is generally limited only by the outline of the musical structure, and by the technical skill and musicianship of the performer. Although there is considerably less interpretive freedom in classical solo performance, non-classical melodic soloists (for example, popular singers) typically deviate considerably in a variety of ways from the basic outline of a melody. By comparison, ensemble performance is much more limited in terms of the artistic freedom enjoyed by the performer. A strict observance of meter and rhythm is usually required to ensure a coordinated ensemble sound, and personal interpretations based on the use of embellishment notes are not generally well advised (and in fact are not even allowed in classical music). The one glaring exception to this generalization is the Dixieland jazz band performance model, in which each individual player is free to improvise in a most extravagant fashion. The fact that this sometimes results in the musical equivalent of chaos is of course a large part of the charm and appeal of this style of music.

Since ensemble performance is largely based on a strict rhythmic interpretation of unadorned melodic lines, and solo performance is based on embellished and stylized interpretations of melodic lines, it would seem that a great deal more technical skill is required for solo performance. While this is true with respect to quick flurries of notes and complicated melodic ornamentations, the basic technical skills and musicianship that are required to play a simple melody in strict rhythm, and in a musical fashion, are no less important. In playing unadorned melody, there is of necessity a pronounced emphasis on rhythmic precision, phrasing, and good tonal production, since a musically successful interpretation of an unadorned melody is not possible otherwise. And while rhythmic precision, phrasing, and tonal production are less conspicuous when more advanced playing techniques are employed, the neglect of these basic skills in the pursuit of impressive displays of technical skill generally has an unmusical effect.

Unadorned melody also serves as a model for solo improvisation by providing a basic outline of the musical structure of a melody. In weaving intricate solo interpretations of melodies, even accomplished musicians sometimes overlook the importance of not wandering so far from this structure that the original melody is no longer recognizable. In the case of accompanied solo melody, it is no less important for a soloist to consider that technically impressive ornamentations lose much of their musical value when they stray too far from the rhythmic and harmonic structure of the accompaniment.

The fancy ornamentation of melodies is hardly the sole province of popular contemporary vocalists intent on establishing a signature style of performance. For example, the Rococo period in classical music, which followed the Baroque period, was likewise characterized by extravagant ornamentations of melodic lines. The more conservative bent of the Classical period that followed was in part a reaction to this extravagance. There have always been virtuosos (players or singers of extraordinary skill) in all genres of music, and there likely always will be, since the value and appeal of exceptional technical skill as a musician are obvious enough. But the underlying truth is that no amount of technical skill can compensate for a lack of structure in a musical performance, because the sense of music is dependent on musical structure. An important corollary to this truth is that beautiful and effective music can be fashioned without recourse to advanced technical skills, given a solid and sensible musical structure and good basic technical skills.

While the distinction between solo performance and ensemble performance is clear enough for monophonic instruments, this is hardly the case for polyphonic instruments like the piano and the guitar. Because they are polyphonic (capable of playing many notes at a time), the piano and the guitar can be used to play music that is entirely self-sufficient and complete (melody and harmony), and are therefore ideal for solo performance. In the vast repertoire of classical music, there are more works written for solo piano than for any other instrument or group of instruments, and the classical guitar tradition is based for the most part on the solo performance model. In numerous non-classical genres, gifted pianists and guitarists have developed a wide variety of solo performance styles, and their work is well represented in the library of recorded music and in performance venues.

Quite apart from solo performance, the piano and the guitar have also long been used, and continue to be used extensively, to provide a rhythmic and harmonic structure for ensemble music. The use of the piano or the guitar as a rhythm instrument in ensemble performance is a commonly used performance model in a number of musical genres, including rock, country, gospel, jazz, and blues. In a solo performance, the pianist or guitarist is solely responsible for the creation of a sensible and complete musical arrangement. A rhythm pianist or rhythm guitarist, on the other hand, is mainly responsible for the creation of an interesting and effective musical structure that can serve as a framework for the contributions of other musicians in the fashioning of an ensemble arrangement.

A rhythm pianist or guitarist’s craft is somewhat different from that of a solo performer. In a rhythmic style of play, there is generally more emphasis on basic techniques and on developing a mood and a distinctive sound, and less emphasis on advanced techniques and displays of virtuosic skill. It is not uncommon, however, for rhythm pianists and guitarists to play brief solos in the context of ensemble performances, and many advanced rhythmic styles of play have evolved in this manner. But a rhythm player’s most important function is to set the tone for an ensemble arrangement by establishing a rhythmically accurate and musically sensible foundation for the ensemble sound.

A third style of play on the piano or the guitar is associated with the self-accompanied vocalist performance model, which is commonly used in the folk, contemporary, and popular musical genres. In this performance model, the piano or guitar accompaniment is a rhythm arrangement, because it is essentially rhythmic in function, but it is also a solo arrangement, because it is played in the context of a solo performance. This allows for, and even suggests, a different approach to rhythm arranging, in which the accompaniment is regarded as a self-sufficient piece of music that can be developed in a number of ways so it makes more musical sense.

The musical development of a rhythm arrangement is not just a question of employing advanced soloistic playing techniques, although advanced skills can be used to good advantage in this development. It is more a question of employing subtle devices like slight variations in styles of play that are used to effect phrasing, or the development of counter-melodies and implied melodies in the accompaniment, or the use of rubato (give and take) rhythms. Solo rhythm arrangements can also be developed by introducing other elements of musical form like introductions, instrumental breaks, and cadences. A great many talented and often unheralded musicians have performed and recorded music in a dazzling array of styles for voice and piano or voice and guitar. The popularity of this performance model is attributable to their collective efforts, and to the fact that this is arguably the most complete form of musical expression possible for an individual. Regrettably, there are also many instances in which well conceived and well played solo rhythm arrangements are rendered barely audible, in performance and on recordings, by the overlay of other instruments and voices.