“What should I be learning?”
What should I be learning is a really common question, and one that doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all answer. The answer depends mainly on your current level of playing and your goals. If you are a classical player who wants to add a flamenco piece to your repertoire then your needs are clearly different than if you’re a complete beginner or a flamenco player who wants to play for dance classes.
The first question I’d ask is
how well you want to understand flamenco. If your goal is to really dive in to flamenco and eventually accompany singers and dancers, then a good understanding of compás is absolutely essential. I would recommend making sure you are really comfortable with compás in Soleá, Tangos, Bulerias, Alegrias, Soleá por Bulerias and more before getting too involved in solo pieces. For accompaniment it’s much more important to have good compás and a few simple (but groovy) falsetas that you can really nail than it is to have a repertoire of solo pieces.
If this your goal I’d spend way more time on compás lessons. If you listen to great players accompany you’ll hear just how important it is to have solid compás. You’ll also hear how the thousands of variations on traditional melodies make ‘simple’ compás into an art form. I’m still grateful that one of my teachers in Granada, Juan Fernandez, made me play compás por Bulerias for months before we even got into falsetas.
If you want to learn flamenco
but aren’t in a hurry to accompany (or if you’re nowhere near other flamencos), then it may make more sense to really dive in to one Palo at a time and learn a solo piece so you have something to perform. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with learning one Palo at a time in-depth, and a solo piece is a great way to do this. I would recommend, however, that you try to learn how each falseta in the solo works – i.e. where does it start, where does it end, how do you get into it and out of it. One way to do this is to learn all of the falsetas in a piece and then practice playing them in a different order while making sure you stay in compás. This is sometimes easier said than done.
Whichever way you go,
make sure to really explore any new techniques in-depth and give yourself time to assimilate anything that feels weird or just new. Don’t gloss over a new technique just to get on with the piece if you’re having a hard time. If you think of difficult falsetas as self-contained little etudes you’ll learn even more from new pieces.
If you play some other style and just want to borrow some of the sounds or techniques of flamenco then it’s really wide open for you. You can just poke around this site or any of the other flamenco sites out there and pick and choose the bits that appeal to you. One word of caution to classical players, though: not all pieces that make reference to flamenco are true to the original, so just because a piece is called, say, ‘Malgueña’, doesn’t mean it has anything to do with real flamenco. In many cases the composer is inspired by flamenco but doesn’t have any more knowledge of flamenco that any other non-flamenco.
The other rule of thumb
in starting out with flamenco (for guitarists, anyway) is simply this: Start with Soleá. It really is the mother of flamenco, and a good understanding of what you need to play Soleá will help you in everything you do, no matter how deeply you choose to dive in.