from the Autumn 2000 issue

When and how do you introduce rubato?

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Article by Elizabeth Gutierrez

ubato is one of the most important elements of musical interpretation that we as teachers will introduce to students during the course of their musical study. Knowing when to use rubato and to what degree is perplexing enough to us as pianists, but how do we as teachers effectively teach this concept?

There are no precise answers since the convincing use of it depends largely on the individual performer's feelings and instincts, and not on a defined set of rules. Young students will certainly not encounter the art of applying rubato in its truest sense until the late intermediate years when they become more involved in the study of standard literature. Some sensitive students, though without realizing it, may begin employing rubato to some degree as they learn to add intensity and emotional expression to their music-subtleties of musical phrasing, tonal inflection, and delicate nuances of dynamics. Just as we take great care in introducing these important stylistic aspects, we must also be very cautious in how we proceed with rubato.

What is rubato? It is the means of bending and shaping tempo to enhance the beauty and meaning of a phrase without robbing it of its own basic pulse. To play with real artistry, one must learn to take such licenses. Even the most subtle irregularity of tempo can be enough to affect a performance and reflect one's individuality in the music. In the early years, we can begin teaching young students some of the basic principles of time adjustment-how to give hints of rhythmic freedom that will awaken their musical intuition and prepare them for even more refined applications later.

From the beginning it is absolutely essential that students develop an inner sense of steady pulse and a feel for precise rhythmic groupings. Playing with "built-in" quasi-rubato seems to come quite naturally to young beginners; those who become accustomed to playing this way will hardly be cured of this habit later on. Counting aloud, much to the chagrin of our students, is still the best remedy for the successful training of rhythmic feeling. This, combined with the clapping and/or tapping of rhythms, reinforces an understanding of the exact duration of note values and the equal spacing of time between larger pulses. Diligent practice in these techniques both at home and in the lesson will develop a command of regular beat that a student will hear and feel even before the first sound is produced. Once students are capable of playing rhythms in a precise manner, they will eventually be able to play them in an intentionally-free manner.

First experiences in musical liberty occur when elementary students encounter written indications of tempo change. Though specifically directed by the composer, these markings should be considered as first lessons in rubato, and must be taught carefully to achieve a tasteful effect.

Ritardando and accelerando indications are useful for developing the rubato technique of broadening or hastening the tempo toward a special moment. In both cases, gradual pacing is the key to avoiding extreme distortion. A student who can count and feel a steady beat will have no problem learning to gradually decelerate or accelerate the numbers. Visual aids can be especially helpful in illustrating the point.

I have the student draw the following diagrams and then tap/clap and count each line, being careful to acknowledge the amount of spacing in between. I suggest pulse counting: "one, one, one,"etc.

Students will see immediately that rit. and accel. do not mean sudden changes in tempo (which is often their inclination). As they track the vertical lines, students become much more responsive to the gradual changes that are so clearly evident.

Next, ask them to perform the examples without looking at the diagram, and notice how much more carefully they listen. Students may also walk the pulses as they count. This reinforces the physical feeling of delaying an arrival to a destination or hastening to it with a sense of urgency.

To clarify further, ask students to notice and describe some ritardando and accelerando characteristics that are natural to objects in everyday life (a music box winding down, a train leaving a station, etc.). The following elementary piece, "Alarm Clock" (Piano Adventures, Lesson Book 1, p. 50 by Nancy and Randall Faber, The FJH Music Company) associates ritardando with the gradual winding down of a clock:

Ask students to listen carefully for increasingly slower utterances of the lyric "tick tock" as they sing and play the last line. This will serve as a gauge and will ensure that their internal clock is truly "winding down."

One of my own elementary compositions, "At the Air Show" (The FJH Music Co.), offers the image of an airplane as it accelerates gradually for one last fun-filled climb into the sky:

In m. 45, "gradually faster" is used as an alternative to accel. to accommodate elementary students who may not have yet encountered the term. The lyric provides verbal reinforcement cueing the student to gradually "pick up speed again" during the ascent to the final chord.

True rubato calls for a restoring of tempo after a change. Numerous teaching pieces offer young students the opportunity to master this technique whenever a tempo is placed after a rit.

In "Sweet Dreams" (The FJH Music Co.), Christopher Goldston assists the early elementary student in creating a feeling of melodic expansion by writing both a crescendo and ritardando in mm. 23-24.

Have the student tap and count mm. 21-26 first without the rit. and a tempo, and then with. Next, ask the student to add the crescendo by counting louder. Whether tapping or playing, counting a crescendo aloud will create a more even crescendo in the hands, and will result in a more dramatic broadening.

The opposite effect of relaxing into a special moment is achieved in Nancy Faber's "Walk in a Rainbow" (The FJH Music Co.), mm. 11-12.

Here, recovery time is shorter as the student must resume the tempo on the last beat of m. 12. Always have the student count the smallest subdivisions in a phrase while playing (here, eighth notes) in order to pace a truly gradual slow-down. A well-controlled accelerando can also be achieved in the same manner.

After successful experiences with indicated changes in tempo, young students can begin gradually experimenting with their own planned changes. At this stage, the teacher should determine where rhythmic flexibility can occur and should discuss these not-so-obvious places with the student. The score itself often holds clues to guide the performer. Here are some starting points for the less-experienced student:

1. An unexpected harmonic change can be highlighted with some lingering.

In this well-known elementary piece by Kabalevsky, "Song," Op. 39, No. 8, a raised 6th (B natural) is presented in m. 6 as a contrast to the previous B flat in m. 2. Encourage the student to linger on it briefly, counting a slightly stretched "1-and" and resume tempo on the very next pulse. Exaggerating the crescendo in m. 5 will help intensify the effect.

To hear this performed in this way, click below
371k, WAV sound file

2. Appoggiaturas provide dissonances that can be dwelled upon. Many are found at final cadences in classical pieces such as the first movement of Beethoven's "Sonatina in G Major." In m. 8, students can incorporate a slight ritardando to both highlight the dissonance and create a conclusive ending. The tempo should be immediately restored in the next measure.

3. Certain phrase endings may require more time for melodic expression or conclusion. Notice the amount of melodic contour in both hands at m. 8 of Schumann's "Melody," Op. 68, No. 1. Making a slight ritardando in this situation allows the student time to fully express the imitation between the soprano and alto voices. The faster harmonic progression will also be more defined. In the last measure of the piece, a ritardando should be added for a feeling of finality.

To hear this performed in this way, click below

585k, WAV sound file

4. Wide melodic intervals may be given some elasticity. In Melody Bober's petite waltz, "Music Box Melody" (The FJH Music Company), the B section begins with a large octave leap (m. 16) that can be stretched to create a soaring feeling.

Lingering slightly on beat one of m. 17, an appoggiatura, can also enhance, but probably should be saved for the more emphatic repeat of the phrase at m. 25. The student should refrain from slowing the end of the previous phrase (m. 15), stating it simply, so as not to diminish the effect of the expressive octave leap.

To hear this performed in this way, click below

475k, WAV sound file

Some demonstration of these techniques by the teacher may be very helpful in guiding the student toward understanding the subtleties of rubato and its appropriate applications. Various combinations of these expressive devices may arise in a given piece. Tchaikovsky's "Sweet Dreams," Op. 39, No. 21, a late-intermediate work, presents such an occasion at mm. 5-8.

Notice the large melodic leaps in mm. 5 and 7. The accent on the appoggiatura at m. 6 suggests that it could be held slightly, and the same can be interpreted at m. 8 where a slight ritardando would allow the phrase to resolve tenderly.

To hear this performed in this way, click below

553k, WAV sound file

A student will eventually encounter many more places where rubato is appropriate for achieving a desired emotional response. A teacher must determine when a particular student is ready for such rhythmic license, and must be prepared to assist him in making knowledgeable choices while still allowing room for individual expression. With careful guidance, a firm command of rhythm, and a good ear, nearly every student can learn to deliver a more expressive and personal performance.


ELIZABETH GUTIERREZ is Director of Keyboard Editing for the FJH Music Company, Inc. Previously she held the position of Associate Professor of Piano at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she taught piano and piano pedagogy. She is in frequent demand as a lecturer and clinician in the U.S. and has given several presentations for universities and teacher groups in South America.


Click to read the 1992 KBC articles on this same question

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