Drivers slip into the Exit Only lane to get past traffic at a red light. They cut ahead when the light changes. The time they save is stolen time – tempo rubato.
Those who cut ahead of us on the highway, at the store, at the bus stop, may be your neighbor, my child, anyone. They get to their destination faster, by delaying those whom they pass. I doubt that they consider themselves thieves, but they steal.
In music, rubato takes various forms. It can be holding back for just a moment. It can be speeding and slowing over several measures. In Armenian composer Khachaturian’s piano concerto, a conductor can use rubato to make the entire work heave like a vessel in heavy seas.
At the piano, rubato can be like traffic on a multi-lane highway. One hand maintains the tempo while the other speeds and slows, but never breaks entirely free from the flow. Time is not stolen, it is borrowed and returned.
One time I was running late driving to my piano lesson. Never mind that my tutor might also be behind schedule: I did not want miss a moment. I like to get to music school early to inhale the ambience and ogle the Steinways. And it is oddly soothing after a draining day at work, to exchange a nod and a smile with parents waiting for their kids, those same parents who are there at the same time every week, waiting for the same kids.
When I got to Rubato Red traffic light, the Exit Only lane was open. Like those rats who cut me off every day, I took it. When the light turned green I unleashed 450 ft/lbs of gut-wrenching BMW diesel torque and reclaimed 20 seconds of my life, proceeding stretto to class.