Rubato – benefits and dangers

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I borrowed my son’s Christmas present (mp3 player) the other night and listened to a piano CD before going to bed.  The CD contains light treatments of hymns.  I had already listened to it casually many times before and really liked it.  The artist is a concert pianist that I have admired my entire life.

If you are a serious musician and you really listen to music, you can’t help but notice problems.  All recorded music has problems just waiting to be found by overly-critical musicians such as myself.  As I listened, I became distracted by the artist’s use of rubato.

If you listen to my music, you know I like rubato.  Rubato is a technique where a performer loosens the strict tempo of a song to make it feel more natural.  In other words, the performer might speed up or slow down for a measure or even a beat within a measure.  Rubato first became widely used during the Romantic period.

Rubato is great for making music seem relaxed and natural.  But there is a big problem.  What feels relaxed and natural to one musician may not feel the same to another.  If a listener hears a song with heavy rubato that goes against what they think is natural, they will experience tension rather than relaxation.

That was my problem with the CD I heard the other night.  The rubato was so extreme that the tempo was greatly compromised.  That is not a problem in itself, but because I did not feel his tempo changes like he did, it did not feel like rubato as much as it felt like he was not counting. 

If you use rubato heavily, you will annoy some musicians.   You might even annoy yourself.  Here is why: your own sense of what sounds natural will change over time.  I don’t listen to my own music for that very reason.  I happened to hear the introduction to my new recording of “It is Well” the other day and it drove me crazy.  Why? Because I thought I was pushing the tempo a bit too much on a couple of chords. 

On the other hand, your music is likely to be listened to by ordinary people that don’t have metronomes going off in their heads.  And because of that, rubato is extremely effective if you have good instincts for using it.

So my advice is to use it but cautiously.  I tell people to do two things.  First, record yourself and then listen to yourself a month later.  It it still feels right, you are probably on the right track. 

Second, listen to what people say about your music.  Even though I pick my own rubato apart, the comments I get let me know I am doing it pretty well overall.  For example, I often hear from people who use my music while driving during rush hour because they say it calms them.  Those comments tell me my rubato is creating relaxation rather than tension, which is a big goal of mine.

If you don’t use rubato and don’t know how to start, listen to musicians that use it and try to imitate them a song or phrase at a time.