By Scott Flavin | From the March/April 2020 issue of Strings magazine
Rhythm is more than just keeping time. When considered within the context of a piece, it can be a powerful expressive force, providing shape and poignancy, life and space. For a lesson in rhythm’s profound influence, consider the art of rubato (in Italian, literally “stolen”). Rubato is the act of taking time from one beat, or group of beats, and giving it back in subsequent beats. This is a relatively simple concept, and can be used in myriad ways, highlighting expression and meaning in music when used with balance and taste.
“The art of not playing in tempo—one has to learn it. And the art of not playing what is written on the printed paper.”—Pablo Casals
There are, of course, many ways players can influence time in their phrasing. Slowing down (ritardando) and speeding up (accelerando) are used all the time. Also important is the agogic accent (agogic accentuation), where a note (or series of notes) are lengthened, giving them weight and importance.
Use Rubato Sparingly, and in the Right Places
First, you need to determine where to apply rubato. The key is often in the character of the music. If the music is driving, you probably don’t want to stretch or be too free; if it’s searching, or passing through remote harmonies or large melodic leaps, this might be a place to apply rubato.
Also keep in mind what the accompaniment is doing. If there is a steady accompanying pattern (ostinato), you may not be as free as if there were irregular accompanying figures. Another important consideration is the style of the music—in what musical period was the piece written? For example, the treatment of a crescendo in Mozart might be intensified by moving the pace forward (faster), while a crescendo in Tchaikovsky might impart that intensification by pulling back the pace, allowing the crescendo to expand in time.
A great starting point is to sing the given phrase. Quite often, the way you use your voice naturally will give you hints as to where you might want to linger, and where you might want to move the phrase forward. In addition, listening to performances of great artists can help you find your own connection with the freedom of a phrase—just be careful not to merely copy!
Practice Harnessing Time
To gain control of rubato, there are several strategies that will help. Practice scales, arpeggios, and basic études with the metronome, choosing areas to take time and make it up, slowing down and moving forward to meet the pulse. In repertoire, play a section with a metronome while using rubato; the challenge is to maintain your connection with the pulse while you are playing with greater rhythmic freedom. A great example in the violin repertoire is the Adagio from Bach’s G minor Solo Sonata—the chords outlining the harmony should be within the pulse, while the “connective tissue” of the faster notes between the chords may be executed with some freedom. Playing this movement with a metronome allows you to play with freedom, while not losing the inevitability of the pulse of this incredible music.
Use Rubato Responsibly
Use rubato wisely. Too much and the music can sound out of control and descend into chaos. Ideally there should be a balance between a steady sense of rhythm and freedom of expression. Listen carefully to how far you can stretch and be free while not losing the overall structure and pulse of the piece. Recording yourself will help, as well as listening to the greatest musicians of all instruments (and voice!) and all genres. One of my great inspirations is Frank Sinatra—the way he shapes a phrase and emotion of the lyrics with rubato is absolutely stunning. Jascha Heifetz also had a unique gift of balancing freedom with rock-solid rhythm and pulse, combining the two with a beautiful sense of proportion.
Be a Thief!
In the midst of exploring rubato, you obviously must always keep honing the solid and consistent application of rhythmic skills—the more you are in control of your rhythm, the more you can search out fresh and bracing rhythmic freedom. Using rubato effectively can take the music off the page, enhance your musical ideas, and create greater communication with an audience, bringing your musical expression to another level!
Places to Consider Using Rubato
- The highest or lowest notes in a phrase
- Large intervals between notes (these may require extra time)
- Moments of harmonic tension, dissonance, and non-chord tones—appoggiaturas, for example (these can also be places to linger)
- Dramatic dynamic changes (for example, Beethoven subito dynamics)
- Patterns, groups, and sequences
- Beginnings and endings of phrases, gestures, or sections.