& Evolution of
Many of the Flamenco
artists learned to play by ear and by imitation at least with a teacher
"face to face" without the knowledge of written music. From the
attempts by some to transcribe this type of music, using written
musical conventions, what is known as Classic Spanish music was born.
The guitar music has
matured from its humble beginnings and through its growing pains into
the dignity of the pinacles of Classic music at the hands of a Segovia
and the high reaches of Flamenco from the golden hands of a Sabicas.
Many compositions have
also been written in conventional musical notation by the great ones of
the classic world. These have taken the form of conventional classic
music and most of the Flamenco music transcriptions have developed what
is known as Classic Spanish music, but Flamenco music written by a
truly Flamenco artist,is practically nil and much of the little there
is has been written by musicians who have transcribed imitations in
order to join the bandwagon and share in the prestige of Flamenco
without delivering the goods.
The story is told of
Rafael Nogales who, on being asked insistently by one of his students,
what he thought about one of those Flamenco imitators, said: "Si los
que sabemos no sabemos, los que no saben, que sabran?" (If those of us
who know do not know, how much will those know who do not know?!)
Flamenco music was
born, if one can say that, in the South of Spain and was taught, since
before it was called Flamenco, from generation to generation, from
father to son, without making use of written music, and this was what
made it very difficult and almost impossible to learn to play the
He who knew something, arrived at a certain degree of perfection,
inventing and developing on the strength of practicing his own
techniques and guarded the secrets of his execution and the fountain of
the magic of his melodic runs, like jewels more precious than the ones
that might be produced by one thousand Aladdin lamps.
It may seem difficult for many to understand these intrigues in the
development of Flamenco music, but they were normal in its beginnings
and remained partly justified when it is appreciated that the guitar
has been and is still considered the best instrument to play badly and
the worse instrument to play well" and also that what is acquired under
great difficulties is priced as a treasure and is zealously guarded
especially from those who steal the fruits of somebody else's work and
then pass them as their own. Nevertheless, this jealousy was carried to
such extremes, that it is still famous the case of a father who guarded
himself from his son when he practiced the guitar, and the son guided
himself in his own practice by what he remembered from having heard his
father practicing on the other side of a wall, and in his own way tried
to reproduce the artistic secrets of his father.
The artistic rivalry
closed the doors to teaching and although there were guitarists, there
were no teachers, and without teachers, to play the guitar was very
difficult. The only recourse left was to go every evening, as it was
the lot of Maestro Mariano Córdoba, to the "Cafe Cantantes" where
groups of Flamencos (Flamenco artists, gypsies and non-gypsies)
perform, sit or move as near as possible to be able to watch the hands
of the guitarists, to decipher the movement of the fingers from the
rapid and intricate interpretations, night after night, and then,
afterwards and alone, to practice and practice to dominate the
Part of Señor Córdoba's training, at the start of his musical
career consisted in going "every weekend to the movie picture shows in
my neighborhood where after the movie they had what they called ‘Fin de
Fiesta’ (end of the Fiesta) which really was the beginning of the
fiesta, and which was composed of a Flamenco group performance. After
listening to the guitarist, and alone in my room, I tried to imitate
them with my guitar, and although few were the times that I learned
anything this way, I always acquired ideas which helped me in the
future, in the arrangement and presentation of Flamenco music."
His recommendation to
the "aficionados" is "to go where they may listen to guitar players,
let these be Flamenco or Classic, famous or not, each one has a style
or something personal in their attack of the notes, and more or less
something is always learned."
Starting from those
hard and difficiult times, everything has been changing for the
improvement of teaching. One of the first to qualify himself as a great
teacher of the Flamenco guitar was Rafael Nogales. Also another
accomplished teacher who came at that time to distinguish himself was
The main characteristic
of these two teachers is the sincerity of their teaching in which the
teacher does not withhold anything from the pupil. They were Señor
Córdoba's teachers. After them, others have come who also teach
honestly what they know.
During the difficult
years through which Señor Córdoba passed as a student, his dreams were
always to eventually be able to teach with the sincerity that his
teachers inspired in him, and to write books that would serve others to
learn without so much difficulty what can be labeled as genuine
His dreams were
realized when he was able to write the following books:
"Escuela del Flamenco" (School of Flamenco)
"Guitarra Flamenca" (Flamenco Guitar)
“Traditional Flamenco Guitar, Vols. I, II, and III”
Much praise is due to
certain guitarists who have elevated the guitar to its present standing
and to the prestige which it enjoys at present. Some of those are, in
the classic guitar, the immortal Andres Segovia, Narciso Yepes (also
inventor of a ten stringed guitar), Julian Bream, John Williams, and
others besides the immortals, Tárrega, Sors, Aguado, etc. In the
Flamenco guitar the top living exponent Agustín Castellón (Sabicas),
Carlos Montoya, Juan Serrano, Mario Escudero, Esteban de Sanlúcar, Paco
de Lucía, David Moreno besides the immortals Ramón Montoya, El Niño
Ricardo, Melchor de Marchena, Javier Molina, Luis Llance, Manolo de
Huelva and others who have lent prestige and dignity to the Spanish
guitar over the whole wide world.
A great number of texts
have been written to teach how to play the Spanish guitar with or
without plectrum and with or without teacher. Until very recently there
have been no practical instruction books on Flamenco music and the
teaching methods have varied from no text at all, learning by ear and
imitation and at best with the pupil and teacher facing each other with
his own guitar; to the diagramatic representation of the guitar strings
in a hexagram as the background for the conventions of the tablature
method. The first was, and still is, the ideal method, but between
lessons too much was trusted to memory. The second was an attempt to
correct this but lacked the conventions of standard musical notation
for timing and rhythm.
Maestro Córdoba’s books surmounted these defects by representing both
the conventional musical notation with the characteristic pentagram and
the tablature's hexagram and conventions with timing in the same text.
This is only incidental
to the main merit of his texts which lies in the exercises and
progressions of the techniques to build proficiency in the art of
playing guitar in the Flamenco style.
In spite of this there
is an elusive ingredient to which I may call attention of those who
intend to become professional guitarists, making reference to the
following historical anecdote.
The picture that comes
to the mind of most anybody who hears the name of Diogenes is that of a
Greek philosopher with a raised lantern in his hand and peeking ahead
in search of a man.
There is another story not so well known about him when he was young.
In his insatiable hunger for knowledge he went out in search of a
Those were the times
when a man went away from home a man and with time came back a
philosopher. He met Aristhenes who was once a pupil of Gorgias and then
of Socrates (fifth century B.C.) and decided to study under him.
However, Aristhenes was very popular, his school was overflowing and
could not admit any more students. Not discouraged at the refusal,
Diogenes followed him everywhere day and night begging to be admitted
in his school.
Aristhenes was also known for his serenity and endured this persecution
with poise and patience. At last, one day, his patience gave out and
disgusted at meeting his other shadow in front of him night and day,
raised his staff to strike him out of his path.
Without moving Diogenes said: "Strike! Your stick is not hard enough to
conquer my perseverance!"
The story goes that Aristhenes embraced him, and accepted him as a
pupil, decision which he never regretted.
That attitude is what one needs to conquer almost anything and it is
also the measure of what the student needs to play Flamenco.
There are many who are misled by the apparent ease with which an
accomplished artist plays his repertoir and the casual ways about him.
An acquaintance of mine was describing how a nephew of hers, after
hearing a Flamenco guitarist, resolved to learn to play Flamenco
without a text and without a teacher (none were available) and went
from pawn shop to pawn shop in search of a Spanish guitar.
It was not long after he found one and tried playing for a few days,
that his guitar was hanging from a couple of nails, decorating a wall
and gathering dust.
His aunt finished the story with the following remark: "Little
did he know that to play the guitar he needed a big moustache." That
was her way of saying, hair on the chest, fortitude, determination, or
It might be nice to believe in miracles, but when it comes to
Flamenco, you must first find a good text. If you are reading this you
are not far from it, keep your feet on the ground and go to it. In
Senor Cordoba's texts you will find encouragement whether you become a
professional or not or whether you are a beginner or an advanced
student. The beginner will start earlier on the right path and the
advanced student will find things available only from a dedicated
Flamenco teacher whose Flamenco professional career has been tested in
the stages of Europe and America.
Then there will come a day when you must find a good and honest
teacher, and if he is honest, be honest with him, too; study, not for
pride, not for glory and not for money (afterwards, with time, all
those things "will be given unto you") but because you love Flamenco.
Although Flamenco music is not bound by the rules of written music
because of the insufficiency of conventional symbols to represent the
infinitude of variations of its techniques, and although Flamenco
music, once expressed in the conventional array of musical notation, is
converted into what is known as Spanish Classic music, the student who
lacks a teacher to teach him "face to face" has no other means but to
resort to the written music and its conventions for time measure and
Learning by ear takes many years and there are many errors that can be
avoided with a knowledge of the musical notation and rules.
It is true that in the past Flamenco music was learned by heart and
without musical notation and still in most cases it is learned in the
same way, but times are changing and one has to resort to every means
to learn as rapidly as possible. For example; in the past, a dancer
became famous because she danced Alegrias very well and another because
he danced very well the Zapateado or the Farruca. Today a dancer has to
dance in all styles as well as classic Spanish dances for which she has
to study ballet.
The professional guitarist is in the same situation, he has to play in
all styles, in other words he has to be a concert artist if he wants to
amount to anything. To progress rapidly, as it is necessary to cover
the material required, the student must help himself of all the means
within his reach, as the written music available, records, and books on
the history and customs of the land of Flamenco, etc.
Certain refinements characteristic of Flamenco music are impossible to
acquire through written music but one must use it to acquire dexterity
practicing basic rhythms and fundamental techniques.
Señor Córdoba's advice for the student is to learn first musical values
and to practice the measure of time with the foot. This will help him
to advance rapidly in understanding afterwards the complicated rhythms
To conquer the difficulties that are encountered in the domination of
the guitar much dedication and determination are needed so that nothing
will interfere with the time reserved to practice. If the aficionado
has the intention of becoming a professional his determination and
sacrifice must be correspondingly severe and pointed to reach his goal.
If you are single you might be forewarned that many an artist's career
has been cut short by marriage and if you are married many an artist's
marriage has been cut short by divorce. The reasons are many and
assorted but in the case of a guitarist, or prospective guitarist, the
rivalry between the guitar and woman dates probably from the Garden of
Eden, both demand your time, attention and devotion at the expense of
the other, and if you doubt that the Spanish guitar is human and
female, just start neglecting her. You will feel the curse of her
neglect and she will drop you when you least expect it.
With Señor Córdoba's books, the student will acquire an understanding
of what is Flamenco music and its meaning. Nevertheless, the guidance
of a competent teacher is necessary to conquer the difficulties that
keep him from ultimate success.
The impatient students who venture alone to play the difficult
compositions without priorly submitting to a laborious and disciplined
study, acquire defects in the positions of the hand and fingers and in
the attack of the strings which are next to impossible to get rid of.
In studying any type of music or any exercise, one must practice it
slowly at first making sure that the position of both hands is correct
and that the fingers attack the strings properly. It is very important
to read the instructions in the books not only once but many times to
recall details of the instructions that are easily forgotten or
overlooked at the first glance. To dominate the difficulties of
learning the guitar the student must, I repeat, must have will power
and dedication for hard and disciplined study.
If the student submits to these demands to dominate the guitar, soon he
will realize the pleasure of playing with ease one of the most
beautiful instruments, and this well-being more than repays him for
all his efforts.
In answer to the question by many students on whether it is possible to
well Flamenco and Classic music, Señor Córdoba's answer is that it is
better to dedicate oneself to only one type in order to be able of
carrying this to the highest degree of perfection possible.
Classic music has been composed and developed by an intellectual world,
Flamenco music on the contrary was composed by the people of Southern
Spain, of all walks of life, in their impact with life and its
contrasting emotions of sadness and suffering on one side and merriment
and joy of living on the other.
Naturally, both musics express emotion in different forms. A great
number of the basic techniques is common to both styles, such as
picados, arpeggios, tremolos, etc. but there are postures and methods
of attacking the strings that are necessary for the expression of the
complete freedom of what is Flamenco, which the refinements of classic
music has eliminated in its expression.
The position to hold the guitar is different in both styles and
although one or the other type of music may be played in both positions
it is not the same as playing with the position that it requires; the
control of the technique and the domination of the guitar in one style
or the other, are handicapped if they are not done in the correct
Flamenco music is played with greater strength and energy and there are
techniques in Flamenco that the forced and self-restricted purism of
the classic school does not conserve or allow, such as the tap on the
guitar top, the continuous and rapid rasgueado, etc. which need to hold
the guitar more firmly and this depends on the posture.
It is better to dedicate oneself to play one way or the other since the
beginning and to stick to it, because it is better to dominate a style
well than two half-ways. Of course, the Flamenco student, especially if
he wants to become a professional, for his own sake, should learn to
read music, to know the value of the notes and to use this as a general
base on which he can in the future superimpose his own interpretation
of the music of the people for which there are not enough conventional
symbols to develop the infinitude of techniques used to convey the
inexhaustible variety of forms which emotions, of an emotive people,
The student will be able, without changing the position of his guitar,
to adopt many exercises from the classic method which are essential and
good for any other style, such as arpeggios, tremolos, etc. of great
composers. Good examples are "Recuerdos de la Alhambra" by Francisco
Tárrega, "Romance" (Anonymous), compositions and exercises by Aguado,
Sor and others which are very essential to acquire techniques and
dexterity. Many of these exercises and compositions are incomparably
beautiful and serve, aside of practice for the hands and fingers, as
solos to form a repertoir; but it is not advisable for the student to
go too deep in the study of classic music if he has chosen the path of
Flamenco, because he will lack the time to practice the necessary
techniques for his own style, because this was not his main intention
and because he will never become as good a classic guitarist as the
dedicated classic guitarist.
In the same way the classic guitarist will never become as good a
Flamenco player as the dedicated Flamenco guitarist, because he is out
of his element. This does not detract from occasionally meeting good
imitations in both styles, but the majority are guitarists of only few
pieces in the style that is not theirs, and their accent betrays them
The Flamenco guitarist should know how to choose from among the classic
exercises and compositions those that will be most useful to him. He
must always keep present in his mind that technique is only a means to
conquer an end, it is something to eventually use for some purpose,
rule that is often forgotten by many who dedicate themselves to play an
instrument and carry their technique to such extremes that their
concerts are more exhibitions of gymnastic dexterity than expressions
of human sentiment or, in the ideal, expressions of the divine in the
human. The object is not to use the technique to mechanize, but to use
the technique to humanize, the guitar and its heart, which is the heart
of the artist, to pulsate in its strings.
Of course, there will always be those who dedicate themselves to
perfect the techniques for the sake of the technique itself without
crossing the bridge of placing the technique at the service of the more
perfect expression of sentiment; but for them it has already been said
"Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God".
For those who would like to specialize in accompanying folkloric music
or would like to accompany themselves in popular songs, the
recommendation is to learn to read music and to measure time, aside of
learning to distinguish the different tones. To acquire strength and
dexterity in their hands and fingers they must study the technical
exercises and some of the compositions of Flamenco music they like best.
As was already expressed in "Flamenco Guitar" the techniques of
Flamenco guitar are very useful and adaptable for all types of music
and especially for popular music. Besides being able to accompany
himself, the student may increase his repertoir with some solos of
Flamenco music which will give him acknowledgment and distinction.