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“Follow Along,” or How to Learn Flamenco Guitar with a Tocaora

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For more from Lavinia Spalding, read her Longreads essay, The Cabin.

I’ve been studying guitar for three years now and electric bass for nine months. There’s something special about the happy hours of focus I spend to earn any proficiency, whether it’s to learn a new concept or chord voicing, improvise a jazz phrase, or glean a bass line from an old blues tune.

As a child guitar prodigy, Lavinia Spalding knows this love, devotion, and satisfaction well. She studied with her father — one of the few students of the greatest flamenco guitarist of all time, Paco de Lucía — until she became a teen and the need for friendship overshadowed her love of guitar. Spalding’s father had infused her not only with musical acumen but also possibility; he had wanted her to become the rarest of flamenco musicians, a tocaora — a female flamenco guitarist.

In this beautiful essay at AFAR about family, relationships, commitment, and above all, the love of studying and playing music, Spalding recounts how she travelled to Spain to study flamenco in person with three of the country’s most celebrated tocaoras.

Tell people in the United States that your dad studied with Paco de Lucía, and they’ll smile. Here in Andalusia, they’ll gasp. Their eyes will bug out. They’ll want to hug you. Pilar is no exception. When I show her my dad’s transcription, I might as well have unveiled a sacred relic. “It’s glorious,” she says, poring over it. “Magnífico.”

Leafing through my folder of sheet music, however, she acts like I’ve thrust rotten chicken under her nose. She’ll happily instruct me in the ways of soleares, but this?! No. When she demonstrates a compás, the rhythm she intends to teach me, her hands become birds—darting and fluttering, dipping and swooping, graceful, furious.

“OK,” she says. “Now follow along.”

To be clear, there is no chance I can do this.

And as I struggle, regret creeps in. How could I have quit—twice—such an important part of my life?

But during our second lesson, something happens. While showing me how to connect a compás to a falseta, Pilar suddenly begins playing a melody my father taught me 15 years ago. A delicate, lively string of single notes, it’s as familiar as a lullaby. “That!” I shout. Tears blur my eyes, and then my fingers are plucking along as fast as hers. It’s as if a spirit has been summoned to return me to guitar. It’s as if a missing piece of me is back.

But I do remember, finally, what it means to be musical. To concentrate deeply, practicing until something beautiful emerges. To live for the moment when it all connects and you are elevated. And mostly, to share that magic with someone else.

Read the story