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What Is Rubato? How It Can Help You Enrich Your Performances of "Night and Day" and Other Standards

In this article, you'll learn:

What Rubato is

How to play a song with rubato style

Why playing with strict and even timing is essential

How to balance the rubato sections of a song with those in tempo

Why including rubato can enrich your performances of songs like Night and Day and other standards

What is Rubato?

Rubato is an Italian word the means "robbing the time" (most music contains descriptive words to help musicians play a section of a piece of music more expressively.) Although I've seen this musical term for most of my musical life, we referred to it as ad lib tempo on the gig.

When I was playing in musical groups in the Catskill Mountains, often referred to as the Borschst Belt, during my college years, we often accompanied singers.

If they selected a song such as Cole Porter's Night and Day they might say to me, as the pianist, "let's take the first verse ad lib and then that the 2nd verse a tempo ."

How to Play a Song with Rubato Style

Playing in rubato style can be quite a challenge. For years, I've been emphasizing to my piano students importance of playing with even tempo. When they finally "get it", I am thrilled. From there, of course, the goal is to get a feel for the music, whether it's swing, funk, Latin, jazz waltz or a ballad. Once you get comfortable with playing in tempo in a variety of musical styles, it's time to rob the time.

Essentially, you develop different ways to stretch out the measures with such techniques as:

  • arpeggiating the chords

  • doing runs between melody notes

  • holding a right hand melody note while playing a musical line the the bass with your left hand

  • playing a phrase very slowly or extra fast

  • creating counter-lines between right and left hand

  • interspersing a diminished chord arpeggio or whole tone scale between phrases

Why Playing With Strict and Even Timing Is Essential

Years ago I had an advanced student who had played piano for her entire life. As we worked on standards, fine-tuning the arrangements to make them suitable to her musical tastes, we came to the point where adding rubato sections of some songs was the next logical step. Unfortunately, her ability to keep a steady tempo throughout the arrangements with the various left hand accompaniment patterns (a major component of my TAP System (Transformational Approach to Piano) was an issue. The solution involved using the metronome extensively. Once she precisely kept the beat, it was easy to identify the rubato sections which varied the beat.

How To Balance the Rubato Sections of a Song with Those in Tempo

The key to balancing rubato sections of a song with those that are in strict tempo is the make sure that your tempo is clear and easy to follow. The challenge most piano students face is that when they get to a more difficult part of the song, they slow down. Likewise, if they get excited, they speed up. The result is that the tempo is neither truly rubato nor played with strict beat. That's why you need to follow the rule: always keep a steady beat. No so easy to do, but there ARE some specific ways to improve your timing and rhythm.

Why Including Rubato Can Enrich Your Performances of Night and Day and Other Standards

In my extensive performing career as a solo pianist, I have found that presenting a wonderful standard, like Night and Day takes on a special character when I start it with a rubato introduction. As a musical artist, it gives me time to explore the melodic ideas and harmonic palette a great composers like Cole Porter.

For piano students, I share this TIP: When you play a rubato introduction, it allows you to loosen up your fingers on the keyboard so you are more ready to play a tempo at whatever speed is required by your group or even the placement of your selection in your solo piano performance.

Watch My Video Performance of Night and Day to see how it all works together by combining rubato sections with the rest of the song a tempo.


Need Some One-On-One Help Learning to Play Rubato?

You can learn to do this when you take one-on-one piano lessons with Diana Mascari in our Flexible Schedule Lesson Program


Diana Mascari has taught piano to hundreds of adults and children for more than 40 years. She holds two Masters of Music degrees from New England Conservatory and taught keyboard harmony to music majors while pursuing doctoral studies at Boston University. Her work as music director for a multi-cultural Presbyterian Church has continued for four decades, and her jazz and classical compositions have been performed worldwide. Diana has been performing for more than 50 years. From solo jazz piano (her first love) to commercial groups touring the East Coast to leading her own jazz ensembles at many colleges and jazz clubs throughout New England.


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