Saturday, August 02, 2008

What does "rubato" mean?

_Rubato is something we all hear but can never quite define. Two musicians, one piece of music, separate performances. One performance is soulful, moving. The other is static, straightforward, just notes on a page. What is the difference? If both musicians are highly skilled and qualified, what makes one performance so much more heartfelt than the other? It's rubato, an emotion-driven flexibility of tempo and note duration that adds so much character to a piece of music that we barely notice anything but. Rubato is pushing and pulling, it's gauging the intensity of a piece and making adjustments based on that. It is, almost literally, the heart of the musician.

But just as emotions are tricky, so is rubato. It isn't something to be messed with lightly, and it certainly isn't for beginners. Because rubato constitutes a gigantic bending of the rules, it's something that needs to be touched with kid gloves. Beginners who barely know the rules to begin with aren't yet in a position to be bending them -- even though an accidental rubato is often found in those just learning to play with a bit of gusto. Rubato is, after all, something that we hear in all types of music without really knowing that we're hearing it; it's only natural that it would be imitated by beginners who often learn to play based on what they've heard before.

Rubato shouldn't be confused with a tempo change, though it can certainly do that. Tempo changes are written into a piece of music and controlled by a conductor; though tempo changes often give the impression of rubato, rubato is never written into a piece of music. It is felt and controlled by the singular musician at his or her discretion -- and that discretion is vital to the piece of music. It's important for a musician to be tasteful with the amount of rubato he or she uses. It's fine to adjust the tempo at a particular spot, but that tempo must be brought fully back. A musician can change the length of several notes, but the placement must be perfect, otherwise it will sound like a mistake. Rubato, however heartfelt and emotionally driven, isn't always done on the fly (though it can be). It's frequently practiced into a piece of music so frequently that it becomes a part of that piece for the musician playing it. But the beauty of rubato is that no matter how practiced it is, it will always sound fresh to the listener, if executed correctly. Perfectly executed rubato is the difference between feeling a piece of music and just hearing it -- a difference vitally important to the listener as well as the musician.

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