How I learned Flamenco

It had been on my list for a while, but I never seemed to make the time.  I guess, in truth, I was afraid.  Not of anything physical (although I certainly could get hurt) but of the fact that my enthusiasm for it might be over-inflated.  That is to say- I didn’t want to do it.

I am talking about flamenco guitar, of course.  Flamenco and I go back a long way.  I remember the first time I heard of it: during my early university days, while I was visiting my girlfriend who was at the time living in Spain.  She told me of this strange guitar style she had recently come to appreciate.  You how it is when you get a new interest: you get swept up in it and want to tell people about it.  Just to show you care.  So I did exactly that.

After she had, with much gusto, informed me of the glories of flamenco, the first thing I did was look up “flamenco” on Wikipedia.  I read the longwinded entry through several times.  It didn’t tell me much.  And I forgot about it.

The second time I heard about it was when I was back at home.  Unsurprisingly, it was also whilst I was seeing someone.  I usually liked to take her out for dinner after time spent at her flat, but one evening, she surprised me by saying that she had told her flatmates about me taking her out for dinner, and they had informed her there was a nearby tapas bar that played flamenco guitar music.  And so she suggested we have dinner there. 

Flamenco again!  I thought, but this time it introduced me to a place rather than an idea.  And I liked it.  I liked the tiny bar, the tiny tables, the tiny chairs, the tiny-ness of it all.  Much the way I have liked every tapas bar I have ever visited.  That night, however, stuck in my mind far more than any bar I have ever visited.

But, like, it didn’t tell me much.

The third time I hear about flamenco is when I hear Ronda Serrano play live.  I was out with a friend, and she had left her jacket at the bar.  When she came back to claim it, having left her phone in it, she found she couldn’t put it on.  As it turns out, the guitarist had put his guitar down on it, and left it there.  Undeterred, she returned to her seat, asked for his guitar, and started playing it.  Laying the guitar across her lap, she played the song she wants, and I remember it so clearly- leaning back, shaking her head, passionately singing.  The sensation I felt was the same as the one I would feel when I first heard flamenco, but instead of reading about it online, I was watching it.  I was having an experience.

Like that.

Like the other times, it didn’t tell me much.

But then someone told me to just go and do it.  Someone who had studied it.  “What are you doing with your life?”, asked my friend.  And he told me how he had gone to a class.  Just a class.  I had faith in his judgment, and faith in my own ability to deal with a situation that I didn’t know a great deal about.  That was enough for me.

And before I it, I had bought, a guitar stand, a guitar, a couple of stand lights, a tuner, a metronome, a music stand, a book.  I was all set.  Before I knew it, I had the materials I needed to not only make a start, but make a proper start.  I even got a free “Spanish for” book. 

And with all that I had, I crossed a threshold.  I decided to go to a class.  A proper, real class.

My first steps into a world I already had a proper taste of.

I had a good time with the class.  Lots of laughs with a great bunch of fellow people, two of whom have since become great friends.  And it stuck, so I kept going.  I even started looking at how I practiced, what I practiced, and how I wanted to practice.  Some things I stuck to, most I didn’t.  One thing is that I slowly grew accustomed to the sound of my own playing.  I grew less and less anxious about my progress.  Once or twice a week we ad-libbed the structure of the classes, and I grew to like and respect the teacher.  And more and more, I enjoyed myself.

But I still wasn’t keen on leaving the house to go to class.  I grew less and less certain about my perception of the off-putting nature of it.  But as any sensible person does, I asked myself:

What is this obstacle? 

Is it mental, like a phobia? 

Is it physical? 

Am I sick?  

Am I tired? 

Is it because of the short week between weeks that don’t fall on a Monday and Fridays? 

Is it because I haven’t showered and I haven’t shaved and I haven’t finished work and I haven’t eaten and I haven’t done any of the things I need to do to leave the house before 8.30pm?

Was it because it’s dark and the streets are full of people?

I think back to when I went to Spain for the first time, to live, after having spent time in France, Austria, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria…  I liked the idea of Spain.

I liked the idea. 

How did I feel when I actually got to Spain? 

I didn’t enjoy it at all for the first few months.  It was all I could do to get myself to do anything in the evening.  The view from my flat over the Andalusian coast was beautiful, but I felt nothing when I looked at it.  I felt nothing when I sat in my living room, or in the kitchen.  And I felt nothing when I turned on the TV, or when I ate dinner, or when I left my flat. 

I didn’t enjoy it at all, but I was stuck.  I would have to ride it out.  Until suddenly, that winter, I found myself suddenly in love with Andalusia.

I was suddenly desperate to go out, suddenly excited to explore.  Suddenly, I was leaving my flat three times a day, suddenly I wanted to spend time in bars, to speak to people, to get to know them better.  Suddenly everything I had once enjoyed- the culture, the country, the people- suddenly it all made sense to me.

The reason was simple.  I had no other real choice.  If I wanted to get to know anyone, I had to get out there.  If I wanted to experience anything other than the small circle to which I was confined, I had to get out there.  If I wanted to be happy, I had to get out there.  I had no other choice.  And so I did.

You don’t get it to make you feel good, you get it to make you feel bad.

It is no coincidence that I decided to get myself to the stage where I could learn how to play flamenco.  I had reached an impasse in my life.  These last couple of years living in Harrogate, I had drastically reduced the amount of time I spent out.  This might be because of any number of factors, but I know that one of them is that I had simply come to feel like I had had enough of not getting on with my life.  I was sick of waiting for something to happen.

I had been in a state of limbo for a very long time.  So when that friend told me to just go and do it, I asked myself what was preventing me from taking the leap I needed to take in order to get myself to a place where I would be happy, satisfied, and doing what I wanted to do.  And I saw that it was this perception of difficulty, or difficulty itself.  And since I knew that difficulty is a thing you overcome, I saw that the only thing I needed to do- in order to break down a barrier to my progress in a way that I had no control over- was to leap.

I took a leap.

I took that leap.

I landed.

I landed badly.

In the end, I concluded that most of my discomfort was physical.  In my mind, I had an image of a flamenco guitar player sitting down, singing, playing guitar with a loose, bright, suited grace.  In my mind, most guitarists seem to walk around a lot, use a lot of vibrato, and they all seem to play in a similar way.  This wasn’t what I was told a flamenco guitarist does.  But my idea is a powerful one.

I had grown uncomfortable with the idea of having to hold my guitar higher up than I had done

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