By Jonathon “Juanito” Pascual,
Author, The Total Flamenco Guitarist
Like many, many guitarists from the get-go, I was always drawn to virtually anything that could be played on the guitar. Indeed, my first private lesson instructor was similar in that regard, and was able to work with me from a classical book while showing me Hendrix and Santana, then Chet Atkins and a lot of other things during the four years I studied with him!
Flamenco was not his forte, though I heard him play through a sequence of chords one time as he was tuning someone else’s guitar. I later found out he was playing a chord sequence from the form of Soleares. Something about the progression – the sound of those chords – made tears well up inside. It was a very evocative sound – simple yet profound.
A year later I met a boy in school whose father plays flamenco, and I began to take some lessons with him. I viewed flamenco and the techniques used in the style as additional colors I was interested in adding to my “bag.” I was drawn to it in a strong way and had the incredible opportunities to study in Spain at age 16 and then again the following year after graduating high school. Throughout the time spent in Spain, flamenco gradually consumed me. It has been quite a journey filled with ups and downs, and some incredible teachers. The process over these years has led to many insights into learning and in turn – teaching flamenco, that I feel is timelier now than ever!
We live in a golden age for learning and playing flamenco! This is in very large part due to the absolutely unprecedented availability of flamenco recordings, instructional materials (including books and rhythm track recordings), and in no small way, videos on YouTube. Like so many things, flamenco of the highest caliber from all recorded eras is viewable through YouTube and other sources.
Prior to the last 5-10 years, flamenco has always been something you had to go
out of your way to see and hear, and even with some effort was not always accessible! While videos are no substitute for in-person contact, not to mention the adventure that can come with seeking flamenco in person (think small Spanish village at 3am!), the difference between seeing vs. only hearing this style cannot be overstated. For decades, Flamenco guitarists outside of Spain have suffered from a sort of starvation from the source of this complex and beautiful style. There is no doubt that the last 10 years has seen an exponential growth in the number of non-Spanish players who truly develop fine technique, command of the rhythms, and fluid expressive playing. This just was not the case 20 or more years ago. The norm for many non-Spanish players in the past was a life-long struggle to put the elements together (strums, scales, arpeggios, taps, 12 beat rhythm cycles, etc.), often with a significant element of frustration in the mix.
Out of observing this again and again, I gradually came up with a 3-pronged approach to facilitate learning this exhilarating, though potentially daunting, art form. In essence it is quite simple -dividing your practice time into 3 discreet and parallel tracks of learning:
1) Technique 2) Rhythm and 3) Listening.
1) We want to make sure we are using good ingredients before throwing ourselves into the action of playing pieces, or even using some of the techniques in other contexts. So, rather than jumping in and trying to play unfamiliar rhythms with techniques that even people who grow up with this style practice extensively (hours a day for years), we are well-advised to first develop a sound technique practice. A clear, daily routine of fundamentals is essential and can ultimately save lots of time.
2) Then, a separate rhythm practice off the guitar is of great importance. Flamenco guitarists are in many ways equal parts percussionist and need to be able to set up and maintain a good groove. So, working on this off the guitar is essential to develop a strong pulse and fluidity with the various rhythms. Clapping or tapping on our laps, table, or cajón (a very popular hand drum
used in flamenco) along with recordings, a metronome, rhythm practice CD, or other musicians can be very beneficial to have those qualities present in our guitar playing whether it be solo or ensemble playing.
3) Listening is in many ways the most important thing because it gives context and direction to the other hands-on elements. Through listening, we get a sense of the music: nuances of expression, rhythms, history, and variations from artist to artist. Many guitarists who do not grow up around this music may hear or see flamenco once or twice and get very inspired to learn it, which is of course a great thing. In contrast though, someone who grows up around flamenco may hear and see it every day of their life before they ever pick up a guitar. This means they come to their first lesson with a huge library of conscious and totally unconscious knowledge of the style. We do well to recreate this as best we can by listening and viewing as much as possible in conjunction with the hands-on parts of our practice. So much of flamenco, as with any other style, is learned simply from being around it. A great guitarist, Rodney Jones, once told me in a jazz lesson “A lot of jazz is caught and not taught.” The same is true of flamenco. So listen, watch, and practice grooves and technique. Then, with regular practice in the mix, putting all this together is a very natural and rewarding outcome!
Jonathan “Juanito” Pascual is an active international performer, recording artist, and educator. A native of Minneapolis, MN, he has been playing flamenco since 1988. Juanito first traveled to Spain in 1990 to study flamenco, returning frequently since. He holds a Bachelor of Music degree from Boston’s New England Conservatory, where he now directs a summer workshop, “Unlocking the Art of Flamenco.” He has recorded two original flamenco CDs Cosas en Comun (2003) and
Language of the Heart (2009) and tours frequently with his own ensemble, as well solo performances and frequent collaborations. He has performed with a lengthy list of some of the finest flamenco singers, dancers, and musicians from Spain and the U.S. in addition to collaborations with such artists as Grammy-winners soprano Dawn Upsahw, bassist John Patitucci, pianist Danilo Perez, and percussionist Jamey Haddad, amongst many others.
For more information on flamenco print music and books, visit alfred.com today!