A few years ago, my good friend and colleague at the university, Dr Flores, asked me if I wanted to play the Aranjuez with his orchestra. I was reluctant at first, knowing it would be a lot of work.
But the idea intrigued me, especially as I have always loved Paco de Lucia’s recording, so I decided to say yes and use it as an opportunity to relearn the work and study Paco’s approach at the same time
That summer, I spent the whole summer reworking the concerto, trying to figure out Paco’s fingerings. This I was able to do with his video, thanks to youtube. In spring the following year, I performed it with the university orchestra.
I had put in a great deal of time on the project and was able to figure out most of Paco’s left hand fingerings—I would say at least 85% of it was Paco’s fingerings. This includes all his revisions of the part too. About 10% were from John Williams, another idol of mine, and the rest were mine.
Having figured out the left hand fingerings, I decided that I would also try to replicate Paco’s right hand fingerings, which means using traditional two-finger scales instead of the three-finger scales I had been using.
The decision was also musical. Three finger fingers may be ideal for Bach but they just do not capture the spirit of the punchy picados of flamenco players.
One thing led to another. After the performance was over, I decided that I would try to explore Paco’s picado technique more fully.
Partly it was because I found I had lost some speed in two finger scales. The years of playing three finger scales had spoiled me. As the old saying goes, ‘use it or lose it.’ Luckily the scales in the Aranjuez were not crazy fast.
And partly, because Paco’s picado technique had always fascinated me.
But with all the repertoire that I had to learn in my younger days, I was not able to pursue it as much as I would’ve liked. (I did however work my two-finger scales up to quite a respectable speed and even wrote an article for Mr. Clinton’s magazine, where I mentioned Paco as being one of my great influences.)
I put the project on hold as I was working on a few things but last summer, I finally threw myself into the new project. The objective was not to aim for Paco’s incredible speed although that would be nice. My goal was to try to discover the secret behind that special effortless picado and apply it to my classical playing.
And what I’ve discovered is truly amazing.
Paco’s picado is a combination of factors, all of which have to be present and working together.
(A disclaimer: I wouldn’t claim that I fully understand all the intricacies of Paco’s technique. What I have derived is an interpretation of what I’ve seen and heard in his recordings and videos.)
I’ll be describing what I discovered in greater detail later but suffice it to say that it involves all the major elements described in the AOV.
First, the concept of grouping. To get speed, grouping notes together is crucial. This was probably the hardest one to figure out. Grouping is easy in arpeggio playing where a few fingers are involved, but how do you do it with only two fingers? The answer turned out to be quite surprising.
Next is economy. This is easy. The trick is to focus your playing on the fingertips, just like free strokes. When you focus your strokes at the fingertips, economy happens automatically.
But how do you get that punchy sound if you’re moving with so little motion?
Through the concept of creating power from the release of energy rather than by exerting more energy. I had explained this in the chapter on rest stroke in the AOV for guitar too, where you focus on the plucking rather the resting.
And finally to focus on the preplaying rather than the plucking. In other words, to focus on getting to the strings rather than the actual playing. This too I had described in the AOV for guitar.
One of the most perplexing things about Paco’s picado technique is whether he played from the knuckle joints or the middle joints.
From the way he holds his fingers, it would appear that he’s playing from the middle joints, but my discoveries point to a complex situation where the whole finger is involved.
Perhaps another way to understand this is to ask yourself this question; when you walk, do you walk with your hips or with your knees or with your feet?
Obviously all the joints are involved. And that’s true of Paco’s picado technique. All the joints are involved.
The big knuckles have to hold the fingers in place; otherwise the finger would collapse and flatten out. They also have to push in to create that grouping effect, but the tip joints are also clearly involved in the plucking to produce that super economy of movement.
The big question is, will you be able to get Paco’s speed with this approach?
The approach is so economical and efficient that it’s conceivable that with practice, you could get to quite a good speed but speed is a side issue. More important is the extreme economy and efficiency behind the technique.
So when did I play the Aranjuez? I’ve forgotten which year it was exactly.
But the day after I performed the concerto with the orchestra, I woke up to find that my great idol had passed on the night before. In fact, fifteen minutes before I went on stage to play his version of the Aranjuez. Which made my tribute to this great master all the more poignant.