When you set out to learn how to sing flamenco you must accept whatever guidance is offered. Traditionally, the singing teacher sings loudly at you in a tiny room. Then they stop abruptly, eyes open, and waiting. You are expected to sing back. Be not afraid to sing back loudly. The slightest hesitation will set your learning back by weeks. Sing confidently, precisely in time with very clear diction. If your teaches gets out a wooden ruler and starts banging the dented table you must resist the urge to flinch.
The first sound emitted from your open lips will set the tone. Do not be so bold as to request to learn a particular palos. Instead, bare your musical soul and accept whichever palos you have been allowed to learn.
Most flamenco singing lessons in Spain are conducted in a group setting where the maestro bellows a phrase and the group responds. You may be handed a lyrics sheet. The blank space around the text is probably the most useful section. This is where you can desperate squiggles to look somewhat like notation reflecting pitch and time. Look around the room. You will see that even the most experienced fluid-Spanish-speaking flamenco student in the group struggles to determine where the maestro is up to in the lyrics, sometimes turning the sheet over and then quickly back again, and glance at other people sheets in the hope that they are mistakedly on the wrong page.
Flamenco Singing lessons are loud and earplugs most unhelpful because they muffle out the tiny gems of useful information that may be uttered between breaths from the maestro. Keep a lively and attentive demeanour despite your realisation that the sessions for this one verse will indeed last for several days.
A western musician knows nothing about rote learning
until they have survived a traditional course of flamenco singing lessons.
On the final day the Maestro will ask each student to sing the song on their own. Breathe deep and bellow back. It is only with great confidence that you will be allowed to stop, or indeed to progress. Flamenco today, sometimes has more gentle voices on the stage, but it still applauds those voices who need no amplification. Very often it is the singer with a weathered face and neck-veins popping with the pressure of an oscillating high note, who will draw a wave of emotional adoration from their devoted young audience.
If you are fortunate to study flamenco singing with a personal instructor, be prepared for very strict and brutally honest training. The better your voice, the stricter your training. You will be told outright if something is bad. If you see a momentary weakness in your instructors eye, like a little tear of affection – be careful not to be distracted by your inner spark of pride for it will completely disappear and the stick will be bashing the table once more.
Here is a copy a Tangos de Triana learned in Seville. It was been transcribed and westernised (melismatic ornamentation has been omitted for practicalities of transcription) by April Sampson-Kelly. The English words do not have the same final scenario. They have been altered for our own theatrical purposes. If you are inclined to object to the use of English words in Flamenco, take a moment to note that the original flamenco songs were not in Spanish either – they were in the language of the Gypsies. However, without the dedication of the Spanish Musicologists much as this music would be lost today.