Improvisation in Flamenco
In this article I will discuss improvisation in flamenco.
We become accustomed to repeating learned ideas about flamenco.
However, I think it is worth examining these generally accepted ideas.
My focus is from the position of a flamenco guitarist because that is what I understand.
I will discuss the three key areas of flamenco separately. These being improvisation when accompanying flamenco dancers, singers or playing solo.
Improvisation when accompanying flamenco dancers
My reason for starting with the accompaniment to flamenco dance is simply because I feel greater clarity in this area.
The traditional idea is that if you are a proper flamenco guitarist you can accompany any flamenco dancer without previous rehearsal.
Put into a context:
The phone rings, there is a flamenco dance performance and they need a guitarist.
You have never met the dancer before. You have no idea which dances they will perform or how.
You grab your guitar and head to the performance venue.
5 minutes before going on stage you meet said dancer.
First dance is going to be Soleares, followed by Tientos, then Guajira, Farruca, Alegrias and next you are expected to play a solo.
Easy! You know what is happening. It is all good.
You have barely had time to get your guitar in tune.
If there is a microphone there has been no sound check. But you are a professional so these tiny matters do not bother you at all.
You play an introduction to Soleares, dancer appears slowly mysteriously from the wings.
Just as you are half way through a lovely variation (falseta) the dancer explodes into a volcanic eruption. Then stops dead centre stage.
No problem, you anticipated this.
The thing in flamenco is that you can improvise and you are expert at expecting the unexpected.
The reality of improvising when accompanying a flamenco dancer
O.K. so you got that the above is a joke?
Actually, it is a description of performances that I have had to cope with far too often.
It is of course ridiculous to expect anyone to work like that.
If you want to feel fresh and excited in flamenco and feel free to improvise, I would recommend the following plan of action.
- Find a flamenco dancer you get on well with
- Meet and rehearse together all the time
- Listen to each other
- Be flexible
- Enjoy it, life is too short
O.K. let’s expand the above.
Finding the right dancer for you.
I am a sensible down to earth adult and can thus work with anyone.
We do not have to share the same ideas on flamenco or on anything else. Indeed, we don’t have to be particularly compatible.
After all, we are working, not dating.
Here’s the thing though.
In my experience if we get along well (working) then we enjoy each other’s company and are in the right frame of mind to build the performance together.
I find it very important to meet often.
There are two reasons for this.
If there is a big gap between rehearsals I do forget.
If we meet all the time, I get to really know the dancer and to feel incredibly comfortable with their dance.
Listen to each other
I have to listen to what the dancer feels is important.
Likewise, the dancer should listen to what is important to me.
In practical terms it is helpful to me if the dancer tells me what they need.
This way if I pay attention to what the dancer would like I can focus my guitar playing to provide for their need.
At the same time if the dancer is willing to listen to my explanations of how I work with the guitar they can understand my choices.
The paragraph above regarding listening is in fact leading to my ideas on flexibility.
I must be honest; far too often I have met flamenco dancers who will not be flexible.
They embrace the idea of flamenco hierarchy.
Traditionally in flamenco the guitarist takes their instructions from either the singer or the dancer.
I have a very different way of seeing things.
If two people want to create flamenco together I reckon that they should work together.
When we undertsand each other’s strengths and weaknesses, we are in a better position to produce something that works well.
Enjoying improvisation in flamenco
Now I come to the joy of improvising in flamenco with a flamenco dancer.
Where I have been fortunate to find a flamenco dancer who feels as I do about the above the professional friendship has been very good.
We have supported each other and always known that we could depend upon each other.
Within that security we have felt that we could improvise.
Not exactly taking risks and doing something completely untried in a public performance.
Rather choosing to change things without any prior plan.
A dancer usually keeps a certain section of their dance quite short and I anticipate that.
However, on a given night the dancer is feeling very comfortable and decides to elongate that section without communicating that to me.
I will simply spontaneously create music to cover the new longer section.
We can very happily improvise and be creative with flamenco.
Improvisation when accompanying flamenco singers
I like playing for flamenco singers although I don’t get so much opportunity these days.
This is probably because I like flamenco singing so much.
Furthermore, I find flamenco singers, in general, very easy to work with.
Flamenco singers very often play a little flamenco guitar.
They appreciate how difficult it is to play flamenco guitar very well.
So, I think that they start from a position of affection and respect for us guitarists.
Likewise, we are in awe of them. We want to sing flamenco but there is no chance.
Flamenco singing is something that not everyone can do.
You can see this mutual admiration being played out when flamenco guitarists and singers get together.
How then does the improvisation happen?
Well, for each flamenco form there is a typical chord sequence and you know what, those chords will do the job very nicely.
Hence we already have a very comfortable initial working relationship.
We the guitarists feel safe anchored to the key chords.
Because of this we are free to really listen and pay attention to the flamenco song.
The key is not to pressurise the singer by sounding the chord too soon.
Let the singers make their tone and then after follow with the chord.
Sure, we get it wrong sometimes, at least I do.
As you get to know a flamenco singer better you start not only to be more familiar with their variations but to be a bit better at predicting these.
Now, we can just stay with the chords that we already know and that is fine.
However, we can also try to find some new chords or passing chords.
In every case these guitar ideas must be good for the singer.
It is never a good idea to just show how clever we are.
Our priority is always to help and support the singer.
In fact, our guitar must make it easier and better for them to sing as they really want to.
When a flamenco guitarist and singer get it right together it is a magnificent experience.
Improvisation when playing solo
I improvise a lot when playing solo even though I am not particularly good at improvisation.
Quite often I play for events one night after another, non- stop.
The obvious problem with this is that it can be tyring, especially with the amount of driving involved.
However, my biggest problem is that I do not want to feel that I am playing exactly the same music for each event.
Luckily for me, my events are all quite different from one another.
This means that I feel that I must play music that is correctly appropriate for each unique event.
Furthermore, I desperately do not want to get bored which might well happen if I needed to play the same pieces over and over again.
There is yet another problem.
I do not like the obligation of having to play a certain set program.
Ever changing variety is essential to me. I could never cope with playing with an orchestra.
In fact, I prefer to not know what I will play.
Arriving at a Spanish party for example and not knowing what I will do is fantastic.
It is also a risk.
If when I get there, I feel that there is a cold atmosphere this can pretty much stop my improvisation.
Then I have to rely on what I already know very well.
That is still O.K.
However, when there is a good feeling and I feel good I absolutely improvise.
The music will not be so polished and I need my years of experience to protect me from the unexpected.
Even so, this is what I like best and am sure that this is when I play my best.
Improvisation in Flamenco Conclusion
I have written this article on improvisation in flamenco from a very personal perspective.
It is not meant to be a guide or instruction of how to improvise in flamenco.
Certainly, I would never claim to have the perfect definition of what flamenco improvisation is.
My purpose really is to simply share a few of my own experiences.
So, I guess what I am saying is that if I know what I am doing and am feeling relaxed and happy with how things are going then yes, I can improvise a little.
For you, it might be different. There are many equally valid ways to approach improvisation.
These have been my feelings and I hope that you are finding your own way forward.