How and Why of Rubato

Rubato is the musical term for the elasticity of music - most often expressed in time, or rhythm.   It is from the Italian word rubare, meaning “to rob.” The musical definition is the temporary disregarding of strict tempo to allow an expressive quickening or slackening, usually without altering the overall pace of the piece. In other words, if you rob time from one place, you need to give it back somewhere else. Think of how a rubber band stretches but returns to its natural shape when the tension on it is released.

When teaching elementary students, I work to help the student put their music into a ‘rhythmic’ box. What I am looking for is proper counting and an even tempo. I ask the student to use the metronome and count aloud a lot. My goal is to instill in the student a good understanding of rhythm. Once they can consistently demonstrate staying inside the rhythm prescribed by the musical score then I will introduce the concept of rubato.  

However, this creates its own problems. Adding ritardandos and accelerandos may be easy enough, but encouraging rubato is difficult. Students cling to a solid, even tempo. So, before my students break into intermediate music, I need them to understand the concept of rubato and how to use it. Even the highly experienced musicians struggle with when to use rubato in their playing and how much to use.

 Another analogy for rubato is to compare it to how we speak. We speed up and slow down our speech to reflect the feelings that inspire the words. We use pacing to emphasize certain words and even silence to highlight others. Rubato has the same effect on music. Without rubato music can feel mechanical and pedantic. Rubato adds an emotional context to music.

Rubato means playing with the elasticity of time - giving and taking time.  Rubato is what gives music a human feel and adds to the emotional experience.  A well-programed computer can play a perfect piano piece - but it can't play with the same feeling that a human can who is using rubato.

Below is a link to a TED Talk by Benjamin Zander.  He talks about how students progress through phases of learning musical expression - like using rubato. Please watch the video.  Let me know your take on it!

The How and Why of Practice

Quality practice time is an essential element of taking piano lessons. Beyond wanting your child to excel and improve in their piano performance, good piano practice at home makes for a quality experience during lesson time as well. So what are the goals of piano practice? Effective practice helps with ease of playing, speed of playing, and perhaps most importantly, it helps with CONFIDENCE in playing.  

So, onto the HOW of piano practice. I could write many, many blog posts with practical advice for specific types of practice, but for now, I'll cover the general steps involved in quality practice. Effective practice needs to target the EDGE of a student's abilities. Ideally, that edge gets pushed a little further each day. Managing the content of a student's practice is part of my responsibility as their teacher - ensuring that the WHAT of their practice is able to challenge them each week. If the content is too easy, the student is not being pushed and if it is too hard, then they are also unable to make sufficient progress due to frustration.  

Here are the steps for the HOW of effective practice:

1) FOCUS - Ensure you are ready and able to put all your mental energy into the practice session. Minimize outside distractions!

2) SLOW AND STEADY - Start each new scale, chord, method piece, repertoire piece slowly - then build speed with each repetition or practice session. Learn it well from the start!

3) MULTIPLE DAILY SESSIONS - Frequent practice sessions with a fully focused brain are better and more effective than longer sessions once a day!

4) IMAGINE - Use downtime to mentally practice your scales or repertoire - we can learn by imagining! This technique can also help reduce nerves and stress before performances, or even before lessons. Imagine what a good lesson looks like during the car ride!

My hope is that by using these techniques your student is able to spend their time practicing to effectively improve their piano playing. The following videos cover many of these ideas. See what works for you and your student. Leave a comment to let me know how you help implement effective practice for your student!

TED-Ed How to Practice Effectively

The Flute Practice - this video discusses using mental imagery to practice

Why I Teach Music

My goal as a music teacher is to help create mature, well-rounded, productive members of society. The following TED Ed video makes a strong argument for why all children can benefit from playing a musical instrument. 

TED ED Lesson by Anita Collins on "How Playing an Instrument Benefits Your Brain"

If you are interested in Anita Collins' full TED Talk on the benefits of playing an instrument you can find it at the link below.

Anita Collins' TED Talk