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Maestro Córdoba


Learning Flamenco

By Gabriel Bejarano

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 guitar.
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 technique.
 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 Eugenio González.

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 Flamenco.

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 teacher.

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 Diogenes' perseverance.
 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 musical values.
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 of Flamenco.
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 play
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 position.
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, can take.
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 as strangers.
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.