Introduction by Bruce Berr, Editor
s piano teachers. we are constantly called upon to be master jugglers: precision and romance, agenda and spontaneity, structure and color, work and play, creativity and consolidation, professional concerns and business necessities, hands on and hands off. The list could continue. In a past issue (Autumn of 1996), Joyce Cameron, one of my colleagues for this publication, said it well: "... a skilled teacher knows not only what to do, but when to do it." The essence of our art is that we continually must make choices; solutions are dynamic, not static.
One parameter that demands our juggling skills to the utmost is that of musical pulse. Of course beginners must develop a steady sense of beat, but we must also prepare them to eventually become more flexible. What sounds less musical than a late-elementary or early intermediate piece that requires rhythmic resilience and isn't played that way? How and when can we introduce this flexibility to our students so that their progress is assured and not undermined? Our authors, including Elizabeth Gutierrez and Christos Tsitsaros, explore this dilemma and share with us some of their insights.
A further dimension is added to this column by a revisit from this department's longtime past editor, Marvin Blickenstaff. In the Autumn 1992 issue, he posed this same question on rubato to five authors but he himself did not grace us with his own reply; this issue rectifies that situation!
Trying to imagine rubato described in words can be difficult; hearing it demonstrated at the piano clarifies all. Be sure to log on to the KEYBOARD COMPANION website (keyboardcompanion.com) to hear our authors' recorded excerpts that are sprinkled throughout their essays. The website also reprints the replies from the other five authors in the 1992 run of this same question.
Article by Marvin Blickenstaff
his response might begin with a biblical paraphrase: "In the beginning is a steady beat." Fluctuation of the beat can exist only when a steady pulse has been established. If we can accept that pedagogical "truism," part of the question has been answered: one introduces rubato after steady beat has become the rhythmic norm.
In my lessons with beginning students, we play a game of imitation for the purpose of reinforcing steady beat. I point and say "Head, head, cheek, cheek," and the students respond in kind. This continues as we cover monosyllabic body parts: "Head-head-hair-hair; head-head-ear-ear," etc. The students become expert imitators. In very few weeks I can change my voice from normal level to shouting or to a whisper (dynamic fluctuation) and from slower to faster (tempo alteration). At first, the changes are made in bold contrasts. Gradually, those changes become more subtle and the tempo fluctuations serve as a first experience with accelerando, ritardando and rubato.
Imitative playing in the form of "play-backs" is part of our elementary warm-up. Each play-back starts with CDE, is four beats long, and, in the beginning, stays within a C Major position. The purpose of the exercise is ear-hand integration, or, if you will, playing by ear. The students play back what they hear modeled for them. The initial focus is on the intervals of skips and steps (3rds and 2nds) and quarter and half note rhythms. When the students become proficient with these imitations, the play-backs integrate dynamic levels, 8th-note figures, and each series of play-backs ends with a ritardando. In this way, the exercise incorporates elements of fluctuating beat.
Many of the early level pieces we teach have teacher accompaniments. This provides us with the opportunity to guide rhythmic nuance, especially at ends of sections or at the end of the piece. I shall ever be grateful to Lynn Freeman Olson for the many lovely, musically sensitive pieces he wrote for beginning students. One of my favorites is a three-black-key setting of the child's rhyme "Star light, star bright" (reprinted from Music Pathways, Solos A, p. 3, © Carl Fischer, Inc.).
We say the words and draw the phrases in the air. When we play and sing together, the commas in the text become our phrase marks. In the second line, I push the tempo ever so gently forward, and then we ritard the final four tones. Every student seems to capture the special beauty of the experience. The word rubato is never mentioned, yet the student has experienced tempo fluctuation in the service of musical expression.
We are all familiar with the pedagogical principle "experience precedes naming." Students may not hear the word rubato for years to come, yet in their beginning term of lessons, they may experience slight fluctuations of beat at the ends of pieces or on important words in the lyrics.
When do I teach rubato? My primary focus is on steady beat. But a sensitive elementary piece requires a sensitive interpretation. Through my modeling, my duet accompaniment, and our singing and playing together, the students can experience rubato at an early stage. Introducing rubato in the first term of piano is not a primary goal. However, rubato can be experienced as the result of our sensitivity to the music at hand.
MARVIN BLICKENSTAFF lives in the greater Philadelphia area and teaches at The College of New Jersey (Ewing), the Westminster Choir College and Conservatory of Rider University (Princeton), and the New School for Music Study (Kingston, NJ). He holds degrees from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and Indiana University. He has recently been named Board President of the Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy.