How to Choose and Use Castanets for Flamenco
Castillians call them castanuelas, Andalucians (and many flamencos) call them pallilos. Whatever they're called, the sound of castanets is instantly identifiable—outside Spain at least!—as flamenco. They're controversial, because purists claim that castanets are not part of real flamenco, and that they’re only used in tourist shows. It’s certainly rare to see them in flamenco nuevo productions.
However, some very famous dancers of the past, such as Carmen Amaya and Pilar Lopez, danced with castanets, and you can still see them used in many highly-respected Spanish flamenco companies today. So it's useful to be able to play them: even if your current teacher doesn't “approve” of them, you never know when you may find yourself in a troupe that does, especially if you're aiming for a professional career in flamenco.
What to Buy
Always buy professional castanets. Avoid anything labelled "amateur", "semi-professional" or "student". Go to any souvenir shop in Spain and you'll find small, thin castanets labelled "semi-professional"! Their sound is dismal. They're made for the tourist market, not for real dancers. Some of the better makers do offer a student option - but unless you know what you're doing, it's safer to steer clear of cheaper castanets and stick to the professional ones.
I recommend Castanuelas del Sur's range, which is top quality and (unlike some brands) fairly easy to find online. My pick is their "teacher's edition" model, which I think is perfect for serious students, too.
Why? Because unlike most castanets, they're extra light and ergonomically shaped - designed for teachers who spend hours in front of a class teaching. But if you're serious about mastering the castanets, you'll spend hours using them too - so you'll appreciate the benefits. They're easier to hold, lightweight so you won't tire as quickly, and the sound is excellent thanks to their double sound box. Recommended!
If you're on a budget, my second choice would be their double sound box fibre castanets. They're the same weight with the same sound but a more traditional shape - and 30 euros cheaper!
Castanets are an investment - if you buy a good pair and give up dancing later, there's a good chance you can sell them on to another dancer.
A good pair of castanets from Spain will cost you between 80 to 150 euros, but they can last for life and you are likely to recoup most of their value on resale.
Castanets come in different sizes, so choose with care. If they're too big, you won't be able to control them.
Unfortunately, there's no standard sizing for castanets. You'll see recommendations that children should play size 3, or women should play size 6, or men should choose size 8 - but that's meaningless unless you know what make of castanets they're referring to.
A good guide is to measure the width of your palm, just under your fingers.
- If you choose a castanet that's the same width or slightly less, they will be about right.
- Don't go much smaller - if they're too small, you won't be able to do rolls.
- Never buy a pair that is even a little wider, though - they will be too big.
What Are Castanets Made Of?
Castanets are traditionally made from wood - the harder the wood, the better the sound. The traditional wood is granadillo, but ebony, rosewood, pomegranate and oak also work. The more you use wooden castanets, the better they sound. To play at their best, they must also be kept warm and dry. For that reason, many flamenco dancers keep their castanets in a woollen sock. I have a cute crocheted pouch, made specially for my castanets by a friend.
Solid wood castanets can look and sound beautiful, but the downside is that excessive cold, heat or hard knocks could crack them (though I must admit I've never had this happen to any of mine).
Modern castanets are often made from pressed canvas or composite fiber, because those materials are more resistant to knocks and temperature variations. Another advantage is that they don't have to be black or brown! Many dancers still claim the sound improves with playing and that they must be kept warm - but I'm not convinced it makes any difference.
How to Wear Castanets
Castanets in a pair are not the same. One (the female or hembra) has a higher pitch than the other (male or macho). The hembra castanet is played by the right hand and the macho by the left. The female castanet usually has a groove or mark in the top to identify it.
The complex trills are played on the hembra, while the macho castanet usually plays single "clacks" to keep the rhythm, in much the same way as the right hand on a piano plays the melody and the right hand plays the accompaniment.
If you're left-handed, you may want to swap the castanets around so your dominant left hand plays the more complex rhythms. However, many left-handers find they can play right-handed - and if you can manage it, you'll spare yourself the frustration of constantly having to reverse everything your instructor teaches you. Remember, if you were learning the piano, you wouldn't be able to turn the keyboard upside down - it's basically the same thing.
I'm left-handed and I play right-handed.
Traditionally, castanets were placed on the middle fingers of each hand - as you can see in the photo above, of an old lady selling castanets to tourists in Granada. However these days, they are usually worn on the thumbs.
If you're right-handed, it's best to put the right-hand castanet on first (make sure it's the hembra!).
- With your left hand, pick up the castanet by the knotted end of the cord and put your right thumb through the loop;
- Lift the loop on the other side of the castanet, and thread your thumb through it;
- Adjust the loops until the knotted loop sits almost at the web of your thumb, and the other loop rests just under your nail (i.e. the loops sit either side of the knuckle);
- Tighten the loops by pulling on the knot.
Tightening the knot is not easy with one hand - most dancers resort to holding one end in their fingers and pulling with their teeth!
Repeat with the left castanet.
Important: the loops need to be tight enough so that the castanets gape slightly. If they're touching, the loops are too loose and you won't be able to play.
Don't be surprised if the loops feel too tight. It's common for flamenco dancers to have grooves in their thumb when they remove their castanets!
If you have a long bit of cord sticking out after you've tightened the loops, you can cut it off and seal it with a naked flame from a match or gas stove (be careful not to burn yourself!). Over time, because the cord is under so much tension, it may stretch and you'll find you can cut off a bit more.
How to Play Castanets
Before you learn to play the rhythms, you must learn how to hold the castanets properly. Look carefully at the hand positions in the next clip. If you want to play castanets well, you must get that hand position correct, right from the start. Most beginners start out all right, then quickly let their hands fall into a more comfortable - but less efficient - position. Get into that bad habit and you'll never master castanets!
When I began learning castanets, our teacher had us doing "Ta - Pi" (a single tap with each hand) for what seemed like hours, simply to get that hand/arm position entrenched in our brain!
There are five basic rhythms:
RIA or RRI - the "trill" or "roll", made by tapping the hembra with all four fingers in rapid succession - pinky, ring, index, forefinger.
TA (or TAC) - a single tap with the left hand (using the ring and middle fingers)
PI (or TIC) - a single tap with the right hand (using the ring and middle fingers)
PAN - a loud note made by clapping the castanet closed with the pinky, ring and middle fingers.
PAM ( or CHIN or CHOQUE) - striking the castanets against each other across the front of the body.
Ria, Pi and Ta must be precise and sharp, allowing the castanets to spring back to their "gape" position between notes. The Pan is usually a final note and it's not unusual to hold the hands in their closed position for a second or two.
The next video is in Spanish, but even if you don't speak the language it's possible to follow - and if you want to learn flamenco, then learning the language that goes with it is a good idea. You never know, you might want to take a master class with a Spanish flamenco dancer one day!
Notice how she refers to them as "palillos". Also notice her hand position and how sharply she strikes the castanets, like striking a hot iron.
Castanets in Classical Music
This next video showcases castanets being used in classical music. They're used in classical pieces more than you'd think, especially in music with a Spanish flavour - but as there are only four orchestral castanet players in the world, their place is usually taken by a castanet machine or handled castanets. I've included it because the playing is so incredibly sharp and clear, something we don't always notice in the competing sounds of a flamenco performance.
The second video shows them being used in a more traditional setting, in a performance of Sevillanas at a tablao in Barrio de Santa Cruz in Seville.
How Castanets Are Made
For the curious, here's a video showing how they are made.