Way before I had any idea what I was doing
I wandered into the dance class of Jose Molina at Fazil’s in NYC. This would have been around 1988, and I had been studying flamenco with Dennis Koster for about 6 months during my freshman year in college. I had no business being there. But there I was, and Jose was kind enough to let me sit in and try to play for his class when the real guitarist couldn’t make it.
One day, early on, he asked me to play Sevillanas, and I told him I didn’t know how. He couldn’t believe this. Who doesn’t know Sevillanas? He asked (yelled, actually) “What did you start with? Soleá?!”. The irony is that guitarists always start with Soleá, because it’s slow (and because you could argue that all of flamenco is right there in Soleá). Dancers often start with Sevillanas because it’s light and simple. At any rate, I was humiliated. So I went to Dennis and told him I needed to learn Sevillanas. Dennis was a fantastic teacher and I was a quick learner, so I learned some Sevillanas and went proudly back to class where I realized that knowing a few guitar solo Sevillanas and playing for dancers were two different things.
And so it went. Jose would scream at me,
and I’d go learn what I needed to learn to not look like a fool. A pretty good system, actually, and the best thing I ever did for my flamenco playing. Two years later I took some time off from school and went to live with my family in Mexico. My sister was living in a building that, she told me, had a flamenco dance studio on the first floor. Total coincidence. Turned out that the teachers at the studio were Antonia Amaya (sister of the legendary Carmen Amaya) and her two daughters. Antonia taught the beginner classes and let me sit in, and she and her regular guitarist took me in. I went every day for a couple of months, by the end of which I was significantly less bad at playing for dancers.
Fast forward about 10 years – and after a couple of years living in Spain – and I had decided to go to Berklee and learn how to read music and all that good stuff. And I needed a job. There was a dance studio a few blocks from my place in Cambridge, and Ramon de los Reyes taught his classes there. By this point I actually kind of knew what I was doing, so I could ask to be paid a little for accompanying. And I started playing about 20 hours a week of dance class as well as becoming one of the guitarists for Ramon’s Spanish Dance Theatre. Those hours and hours of playing for class reinforced everything I had learned over the past 10 years. And Ramon shared his immense experience with his students, but also with me. Every aspect of me as a musician and as a flamenco guitarist is better for the time I spent there.
As I write this I realize how lucky I was.
And I’m glad I wasn’t smart enough to know better than to show up at Jose Molina’s class without a clue about what I was doing. But nothing has done more for my compás, my technique, my ability to improvise or my general understanding of flamenco than all of those hours spent with people who knew more than I did, beating the compás into my skull. I simply would not have played hundreds of hours of escobilla por Soleá if I didn’t have to. Which means I wouldn’t have learned how simple it can be to vary the melodies and how hard it can be to keep it interesting. I wrote some really fun falsetas in my quest to keep it interesting. And I played for palos that are almost never performed, so that on the rare occasion when they were performed I knew what I was doing. And I heard almost every pattern a traditional flamenco dancer might dance, which makes it much easier to roll with whatever a dancer might throw at me on stage.
In short – if you want to learn flamenco (even if you don’t intend to play much for dance) and if you’re in the position to do so, there’s nothing I recommend more highly than getting to dance class and soaking in the compás and experience of someone who knows way more than you do.