One of the ways that flamenco is a little different from other music is that we generally don’t start out learning full songs with a defined structure. Instead, we learn how the compás works and how to flow in and out of the compás and we learn falsetas, which are the melodies that the guitar plays (you can think of them as short solos within a Palo). The fun part of this is that you may never play the same piece exactly the same way twice. The frustrating part is that you may never play the same piece exactly the same way twice.
Taught by rote
As a folk music, flamenco has always been taught by rote – you sit down with your teacher and they show you how to play. No sheet music or tabs, and until recently no videos. Depending on your technique, your teacher will choose material that makes sense for you. So you might learn a Soleá with mostly traditional material but one or two simple falsetas by Paco de Lucia or one of the other masters, and your personal Soleá will be well suited to you. Over the years you will learn more and more material so that you have enough falsetas to play two or three solos in each Palo, but chances are that no one else will play a Soleá exactly like you do.
Full pieces or Accompaniment?
Generally, we don’t teach full pieces until our students have a really good grasp of technique and the various Palos. Learning a full piece by one of your favorite guitarists can be really rewarding and a great technical challenge. And if you learn it by ear it can be a fantastic ear-training experience. If you are mainly a solo guitarist it may make a lot of sense to learn a few pieces this way. But if you want to accompany dancers and singers it may be more useful to learn different falsetas that can be used during accompaniment.
In flamenco we tend to recycle our material all the time, too. This means we may take a falseta from someone else’s solo piece and play it for a dancer. Learning how to take the material from a piece and apply it elsewhere is something that happens very naturally as you get better acquainted with the compás and the structure of flamenco. This is one of the reasons I believe that the traditional way of teaching flamenco makes more sense than diving in to whole pieces at the beginning.