Expressive Guitar Playing
Tapping Your Student's Inner Artist, Part 6
by Daniel Roest
Are any of your students playing like robots? Help them improve their adjustments to tempo - to sound more 'human.' The use of rubato is the focus for this month's column.
If you're just joining us, this series is about teaching expressive playing using a set of effects - think of them as virtual knobs on the guitar that can be dialed up or down. Because they are adjustable and together make up the whole, we're calling them "parameters" to underscore that concept. A look back at May (dynamics), June (tempo), July (the big picture), August (rhythm) and September )balance) will catch you up.
Gently Does It
When you deftly change the tempo to highlight the end of a phrase or the start of a new one, you are using tempo rubato - a bending of the speed of the beats. As an expressive instrument, you can't beat the guitar. For every player, there is a use of rubato that matches that player's emotional interpretation. You can set the audience's feet tapping with a tight rhythm, and then touch their hearts with rubato in a well-timed ritard (short for ritardando, meaning gradually slowing tempo. Ritenuto is an immediate reduction in speed.) How it works is curiously personal process.
Rubato comes in two main flavors - strict rubato and free rubato. Meaning "robbed time," according to most sources, strict rubato borrows and pays back variations in time. So if you and I start the same piece at the same tempo, and I use rubato and you play in strictly steady time, we would arrive at the end at the same moment. You'd sound mechanical and I'd sound "expressive."
By contrast, free rubato's stolen time isn't given back. Dance music certainly won't use free rubato, but art music, free improvisations, cadenzas and the like may make good use of the lack of a beat. In concerts, I play Serenade by Philip Rosheger. As the title implies, it is serene. In 3/4 time, it opens with four broken chords, one per measure. I choose to use free rubato on them. Depending on the space - say, a reflective hall and a hushed audience - the chords ring out and decay. The effect is gorgeous. Then I repeat the chords "in time" and set the scaffolding for the soothing melody, which employs a stricter rubato.
Too Much, Too Little, or Just Right?
Last month we played with balance - and moved the virtual knobs from one extreme to the other in many expression parameters. Some of them are directly affected by rubato. As you coach your students on using rubato, demonstrate the use and benefit of rubato with a suitable piece. To set the use of rubato in perspective, play with an absolutely metronomic evenness - followed by a syrupy, overdone romanticism. Then help them find a middle ground - the right balance. The aim is to help the students get a handle on using rubato, so avoid setting some point as gospel - just help them experience gaining control of tempo.
When I hear one of my students wait for me to tell them how a passage should be played, I say to him, "You have the sacred fire, there, inside yourself. Don't wait for me to provide it."
The goal should be for the student to find his or her own best idea of speed for a given piece - when it feels right. Control the impulse to influence the decision with your own wise opinion. Just facilitate the process by setting out the range of options and helping refine the final setting.
Remind your students that before they use tempo rubato, they have to be able to play in strict time. That way, they will have the steady rhythmic pulse from which to make meaningful deviations.
As with tempo in general, finding the right amount of rubato depends on the mood of the piece, performance traditions, acoustics in the performing space and what works with a given audience.
A great place to use rubato is on longer tones when vibrato is used. Depending on the speed and depth of vibrato chosen and the point in the phrase, these will benefit from some amount of rubato. A couple of ways of explaining these moments is to say that we are fattening the lengthened notes, or that it's like a drop of oil on water. Look at this excerpt from Matteo Carcassi's Study 19, Opus 60:
On the dotted half notes in the melody, see the effect of pushing out the harmony sixteenths, as if there's a hidden sixteenth note between the first and second notes. Then speed up the remainder of the sixteenth notes in the measure to make up the tempo - an example of strict rubato.
Point Them in the Right Direction
Whatever style of music you are teaching, there is room for rubato; it's not just for classical. When you push the pace here and slow it there, you create expression. Students want to learn that magic. They want to get all the technique they're capable of, but more than that, they want that real emotional charge for themselves - and anyone they play for.
We are learning in this series about the many parameters of musical expression. This month, inspire your students with new, rich experiences in expressive playing. My next column will continue to explore how to share the potential of our expression machine, the guitar.
Copyright © 2008 Daniel Roest
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