Reflexiones Sobre… Flamenco Technique

This is the third post in the series entitled “Reflexiones Sobre…” (“Reflections On…”). These are published occasionally to explore a single theme. Rather than move through an individual interview sequentially, the reader gains a deeper understanding of the breadth of opinions and perspectives on a specific topic. 

This reflection looks at the subject of flamenco technique, a difficult and often overwhelming subject for many flamenco artists. It addresses guitar technique primarily, but also includes thoughts on dance, voice, and instrumental technique. The post does not discuss any one technique in detail, but reflects on the general role of technique relative to the art form as a whole. How does one prioritize the study of technique versus other aspects of musical study? Can art be created without technique? Who is the technique for and what purpose does it serve? How is flamenco technique different from other musical styles, such as jazz? These are some of the questions addressed in the excerpts below.


Flamenco technique today is incredibly advanced and difficult. However, the point of art, at least from my point of view, is to have something to say and to communicate that effectively. Can you talk about the approach and attitude you have with respect to your technique?  

MIGUEL ÁNGEL CORTÉS, GUITARIST/COMPOSER

Technique is the mechanical part, like a car. Apart from being able to manage the instrument, technique helps remove obstacles, so you can express what you have in your head and heart. It’s also okay that there are certain artists without much technique. I’m not going to name names, but I love some of them because they can phrase really well, have a strong personality, interesting details, a good thumb, or maybe they’re really strong rhythmically even though they don’t have a good picado, for example. I don’t know if I’m the one to say this, but although I think I do have good technique, because I study hard, there are certainly colleagues with better technique than me. The intelligence, as they say, lies in the fact that the guitar sounds good, it sounds clean and has a good pulse. You know why my guitar sounds good? It’s because I adapt the music I play to my technique. That is important.

BELÉN MAYA, DANCER

When I started, it was so important to have technique. Of course, it’s not the technique that people have now. It’s grown 300 percent, [it’s] different, faster, [there are] really subtle things, and not only footwork, but movement in general, also mantón, bata de cola, everything. It’s evolved a lot. Rocio [Molina], Israel [Galván], there are always these leaders that open the way and tell new generations how it should be. The problem is that these two people, Rocio and Israel, are technically perfect so young people want to be like that. I always tell people in my classes, “you will never be like them, you can’t be like them because they’re perfect. They’re over the general level of technique, it’s almost impossible.” [Work to] have a good technique, basic, [that allows] you to do what you want to do. What do you want to express? Start from your emotion and from your narrative. What is your narrative? What do you want to say? What is your universe? For example, Soleá, what is the universe of your Soleá? This singer, this style of Soleá, for example Fernanda or Manuela Carrasco and this look, this kind of dress and this speed, this really slow speed and this structure, maybe three letras and no Bulerías. I ask them to make a universe,  choosing different pieces and making choices, conscious choices of how you want it to be. First, your emotion, don’t relate to my Soleá and what I’m feeling. You. What do you feel? What are the experiences in your life… my grandfather died, my divorce, my dog died. I don’t know. First, find an emotion or a memory and your universe. You put that together and then you move. You move and maybe your footwork and your arm work don’t need that much technique to express what you want to express inside your universe. Maybe that technique that you want to reach, that speed or that perfection, belongs to another universe that is not yours. Maybe yours is more basic, really slow, like Butoh. Why? Technique is a medium to [reach] a goal. It’s not the goal, it’s not. So, many people do not need much technique.

The thing is that if you focus on technique…  you get a very good response from your colleagues, from the audience, and from the musicians because everyone loves technique. That’s an easy way out. It’s an easy way out because you don’t have to express your emotions. You don’t have to go deep into your emotions and into your sadness, talking about Soleá, for example, that solitude and that sadness. You just stop at the level of technique and everything is perfect, so it’s easier in a way. I always tell [my students] to look at dancers like Manuela Vargas, for example. She was from my mother’s time, the 50’s and 60’s. She had very little technique, but the way she moved and what she would express was very powerful. I always say the same, that they look to Manuela Carrasco, Manuela Vargas, Farruco. Farruco didn’t have footwork technique, he didn’t do anything. But it didn’t matter.

JOSÉ MANUEL MARTOS, GUITARIST

I focus principally on technique. Without technique, you can’t handle the instrument. There are many people that can study an instrument without getting too involved with technique. But I think that, by being direct with its study, one can take better advantage of the instrument and can handle it better. The falsetas can be handled better, you can compose better, and my way of studying the guitar is based on technique. That’s what I’ve learned from the Fundación [Cristina Heeren] and from the teachers I’ve had, the control of technique. When I’m studying the guitar at home, I dedicate most of my time to this.

ALEJANDRO GRANADOS, DANCER

Technique is also behind what seems to be very simple. What we tend to call technique refers to complicated execution and that’s not necessarily the only thing that requires technique. Someone who dances really slow por Soleá has to have good technique. At times we get confused regarding the concept of technique. We think if someone does eight pirouettes or a really fast picado on the guitar that they have a lot of technique. But, to play a slow Soleá or Siguiriya demands a lot of technique. The concept of technique is relative. I see it more as “execution,” that the execution is either more or less complicated.

DIEGO VILLEGAS, INSTRUMENTALIST

My technique is there to tell my story. Flamenco technique doesn’t really exist [for the flute]. It does for the flamenco guitar, not because they are flamenco techniques per se, they are guitar techniques that are only used in flamenco, like the alzapúa or the four-finger tremolo. For whatever reason, those techniques are used. But, there is not flamenco technique for the flute. It’s an instrument with a series of possibilities, some of which work better for this style of music. There isn’t really [flamenco] technique for any instrument, there are just things that can be used. The important thing though is to tell your story. When I did my album, there was one interview where the interviewer valued what I did because, even though I was a young, 28 year old guy, I hadn’t wanted to show off virtuosity. There was no virtuosity anywhere, there were melodies that were simple and that could be sung. The flute has certain technical abilities that the flamenco voice does not, however, as a musician I love cante flamenco and Kind Of Blue, by Miles Davis. Where is the similarity? The similarity lies in the fact that jazz has twenty million notes in five measures, but of the twenty million, only four are important. If you have the balls to play those four without all the others and tell the same story, you’re incredible! This is what gets closer to flamenco. The flamenco singer uses a very simple melody; he positions the note, directs it in a way that gives it emotion, makes it hurt, lets it settle in a bit, then returns to create more tension, then a bit more tension and then lets it relax. But the singer only needs six notes to do all that, not twenty! It could be twenty, of course, but that creates a very different [musical] conversation. I love that about music. I love when Miles Davis just does, “baaaa… baaaa… beep.” Afterwards you’re like, “damn, how did he do that?” He just told me everything! It’s the same with flamenco singing. That’s what I really like, but who knows, maybe for my next disc I’ll go with Charlie Parker! (laughing).

Of course, you do have to study technique, because the worst thing that can happen to you is that you can’t do something you want to do. That’s tough, for sure. If you know that you have to go, “birabeedabubaaam,” you know it. You’ve got to do it, but if there’s no possibility of doing it, you’re screwed, you can’t. I always say there are three steps to a musical career. First, you feel the music. Second, you forget about your feelings, sit yourself down and study like a son of a bitch. Third, you return to the first step with all you learned in the second step. That’s the most difficult part.

IAN SCIONTI, GUITARIST

Maybe what’s so characteristic about flamenco guitar is the way it’s played, more so than jazz possibly. I need to be careful about how I say this. For example, I always say with flamenco it’s not so much what you play, but how you play it. Flamenco is not the Andalucian cadence, that’s not enough. It’s how you play it that starts making it flamenco. It’s the rhythm, the techniques, and the intention. So much so that it can still sound very flamenco with little technique. It’s a way of playing the strings. You can be technically great and not have any weight when you play, or you can be a pretty mediocre guitarist with three chords and everyone knows you can play. It’s not the musical material itself; it’s how it’s interpreted.

As far as the sound, I don’t think jazz is as strict as flamenco. Technically it’s not as strict. Wes Montgomery and Pat Martino are just two completely different guitarists technically, yet they’re two of the greatest jazz guitarists. But if you compare Paco [De Lucía] and Manolo [Sanlúcar], they’ve got the same technique essentially, only slight variation. Wes Montgomery didn’t play with a pick and had different patterns than Pat Martino.

If you’re spending so much time studying technique, you don’t have time to explore other things. If you’re worried about making sure you can do a picado at 180 [beats per minute] for a fast Alegrías, you probably don’t have much time to study harmony or learn how to improvise. I think that’s coming to an end, to be honest. [Technique has] definitely propelled flamenco forward as far as rhythmic precision. That’s one of the big things you notice with Paco [De Lucía]. He’s so rhythmically precise, much more so than Sabícas, if we look at Sabícas as sort of a predecessor. What Paco did was just put this all in time in an impeccable way, just flawless. He’s a metronome. He was also part of that generation that started producing albums. That’s one of the things it’s given us, as well as clarity. Having a clean sound, a crisp sound, and a sharp, short attack. A fast attack is fundamental, or it was. Without technique you can’t do anything in flamenco, but technique needs to be in service of the music. I think there definitely have been periods where it kind of sounds like we’re listening to the same thing over and over again and the only thing that varies is how long [the guitarist] can do a picado.

I would say that I have started becoming more honest with myself by just saying, “I don’t have a great picado. I don’t.” I’m not going to spend my time working on that. I want to have a clean picado, I want to be able to do certain things. I want it to sound good. It’s not like I’m old, but I’m 36, I’m not going to waste another ten years trying to have a fast picado so that when I’m 45 maybe I can do something. I’ve been playing enough to know what I do well and what I don’t do well. I’m not going to lose sleep over it. Technique, I wouldn’t say I put it on the back burner at all. It’s not that it’s not a priority, because you have to have a high technical level to even approach flamenco, but technique is definitely at the service at the music. With what I want to play, I don’t necessarily [want] a super fast picado, that’s not the intention. But, you know, maybe that’s because I don’t do that, it’s the chicken and the egg (laughing). Oh yeah, “I don’t hear that in my music.” Of course you don’t! You’re not going to put a fast picado in there that you can never play. I’m not an idiot. I’ve definitely stepped back from technique and just said, “this has to be functional for me, I have to be able to use this.” This is something that I definitely say to students more and more, guys who are trying to learn these really difficult falsetas all the time. “Okay, that’s really cool, that’s great, but you can’t play that on stage. Make it your own. You can’t play that picado, so put an alzapúa at the end. You need a strong remate, put in an alzapúa, that will sound good.” I definitely encourage people to be realistic about their capabilities. That’s what gave us Miles Davis. “I’m going to do really sparse solos.” I mean the guy could play fast, but he wasn’t Dizzy Gillespie.

I think now, with the current generation of young flamenco guitarists, guys are stepping away from such a focus on technique. Look at Dani De Morón, he has incredible technique; of course he has incredible technique. It’s amazing, but it’s not on constant display. Diego Del Morao, yeah you need good technique to play that, but it’s a different focus. It’s not this shredding type of guitarist. It’s, “let’s play with this rhythmically and harmonically and let’s see where this goes. Let’s create textures.” It’s Luzia and Cositas Buenas; it’s that influence, where it just keeps going and going. It’s not compás, falseta, remate… compás, falseta, remate… compás. One thing just flows into the next and you’re on this rhythmic train, the ball just keeps rolling.

PACO CORTÉS, GUITARIST

You have to have technique, otherwise you can’t play the guitar. Some have more technique and others less. That depends on the person and the amount of study they put in. I come from an area where things are based on thumb technique. There are many specialists in Granada that play with a lot of thumb, Pepe Habichuela, Juan [Habichuela]; Marote played a lot for dance and he had an excellent thumb, El Ovejilla also. All these guys are cut from the same cloth, where the thumb technique has a lot of flavor and pellizco (feeling/attitude), always searching for that pellizco. I try to play material that makes me say olé inside, so that when I’m playing it, I’m saying, “Damn, olé! That’s a great sound!” If I don’t feel this, it’s not valuable to me. It can be valuable in a practical playing situation, but not for me to enjoy, you know.

PASTORA GALVÁN, DANCER

I should have better technique. I think my technique is strange, but my life is also complicated. I have a daughter. I’m a single woman raising my daughter. I think that matters a lot too, whether or not someone has children. If you don’t have children, you can dedicate your entire day to your dancing.

PEDRO SIERRA, GUITARIST/COMPOSER

Technique is fundamental, having a refined, clean technique, but you have to be careful. If everything is based in technique, one can get lost. The problem with technique is that most people who want more technique really just want more speed. Once that speed is achieved, the notes are shorter, and so melody is sacrificed. One has to be balanced and find an equilibrium. You should work to get fast, but there need to be moments with long notes and understandable melodies. It’s difficult to find this balance, but we must. I search for this. When a guitarist’s hands are strong, and they have a lot of technique, there’s a tendency to rush everything. That often comes by sacrificing melodies that need to be slow and relaxed.

The tremolo imitates the violin or the cello. Since the guitar doesn’t have sustain, it tries to imitate longer melodies. That can also be done by using open notes, but it’s really difficult to maintain the pulse. The problem with the flamenco guitar is this, that there is so little sustain.

EDUARDO REBOLLAR, GUITARIST

Technique is the vehicle that gives an artist the power to say something. If the vehicle is top-of-the-line, a Ferrari, it can do more than a lesser car. Technique is at the service of the music, not the other way around. Some people think that the music should serve the technique. That is a huge mistake. Great technique is not needed to accompany, although you do need to be able to do certain things, but a guitarist that dedicates himself to accompaniment needs to understand what that means. He needs to know the cante (singing) and needs to know about the singer and what he/she needs. After that, if you have more technique you can still put it to use there, but without overstepping yourself. When it comes to accompaniment, technical guitarists normally aren’t very good. What they want is technique, and because of that they often play solo, because that’s where their abilities lie. But to accompany well, you must be an aficionado of cante. I think students today come in search of this, they want to be able to accompany both cante and baile (dancing).

PEDRO BARRAGÁN, GUITARIST

Oh yeah, [technique’s] a big topic, for sure. That’s also a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot myself lately, especially in my compositions. My reflection is this: we’ll start with Paco De Lucía, but actually we could start from much earlier. [Since Paco,] the flamenco guitar has been an instrument almost exclusively for virtuosos, or perhaps even from Sabícas or Ramón Montoya, who were also virtuosos. In flamenco guitar, the concept of virtuosity really weighs you down. It often feels like if you’re not a virtuoso, you simply can’t dedicate yourself to this. If you don’t dedicate many, many hours to perfect your picado [technique] or your ability to do really difficult things on the guitar you’re not going to get work. That’s where the level is, it’s at the level of those great virtuosos. So when I reflect on this I say, “Is this really necessary?” What I mean is that it seems like we just value virtuosity, and if the guitarist lacks many other things it’s not a big deal. The problem with flamenco guitar, and the solo guitar above all, is that now it practically doesn’t have an audience, because the audience is basically just guitarists. Almost no one understands the flamenco guitar aside from guitarists. Artists like Paco De Lucía, Vicente Amigo, and a few others are exceptions because they have made music for a wider audience. But within the flamenco guitar circuits, for example if you go to a Bienal and you go to a guitar concert, practically the whole audience is made up of guitarists. Is this really of value? Maybe we should look for or prioritize other things before technique and virtuosity. Perhaps we should at least allow someone who’s not a virtuoso to say something to us. Perhaps someone who hasn’t spent eight hours every day studying technique has been spending that time studying, I don’t know, how to find the full beauty of a chord, right? Maybe that would benefit us all. I’m not saying that the virtuosos should disappear. It’s something that makes flamenco guitar special and give it its prestige, but I think there could be some variety. We could have other types of musicians too. We could at least accept them, because the problem is that we don’t accept them. I’m thinking about this topic now because in my compositions I’m trying to create passages where nothing is faster than an eighth note. It’s taking all the energy I have because I’m clashing with the language of flamenco and its style of expression. It’s turning out to be much more difficult than a fast scale. Flamenco has none of this. There’s not a single moment where you just hear… dee…da… dee… da… dee… da and where it just keeps that speed. You won’t find it. If you want that you have to invent it and it’s really difficult work.


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Feature image by Sarah King-Besse

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