Franz Liszt on Rhythm, Rubato, and Playing Like Chopin

Tuesday Quotes are short explorations of music, life, and the daily endeavor of practicing classical guitar. Find more here. Enjoy!

“Look at these trees!’ The wind plays in the leaves, stirs up life among them, the tree remains the same, that is Chopinesque rubato.”

Franz Liszt

As musicians, we aspire to play beautifully. We want our music to sing. We want listeners to move beyond hearing notes, and instead have a personal experience.

And while we practice and toil to get all the notes of our pieces, there’s more. We also have the “phrasing.” This is what separates us from machines. This is one of the places where we develop and show our art.

As we become more advanced in our skills, we come to different understandings of how music works. We see strings of notes as gestures or ideas. We strive to first understand then communicate the psychological character of the music.

And on guitar we do this primarily using volume, timing, and tone quality. These are our tools. This is how we paint in sound.

But in our quest to play with expression and beauty, we often over-stretch. In our pursuit of color we cross the line into gaudy. We end up with melodrama – a caricature of something beautiful, but not beautiful itself.

And the most common way we go wrong? In the timing. The rhythm. We slow down or speed up too much and not in the best places.

This is because we may not have developed a strong sense of rhythm. We need a foundation of strict rhythm before we can effectively alter it.

We need roots. The legend of piano virtuosity, Franz Liszt, makes the analogy of a tree. The trunk is firmly rooted and stable. And this allows the smaller bits (the leaves and branches; and in music, the notes and phrases) to move more freely.

The musical term for this fluidity of time and rhythm is “rubato.”

Chopin would say, “A piece lasts for, say, five minutes, only in that it occupies this time for its overall performance; internal details [of pace within the piece] are another matter. And there you have rubato.

In his book on Chopin’s teaching, Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger writes: “[Chopin] required adherence to the strictest rhythm, hated all lingering and dragging, misplaced rubatos, as well as exaggerated ritardandos. ‘Je vous prie de vous asseoir’ [Pray do take a seat] he said on such an occasion with gentle mockery.”

As we work to play with more freedom and expression, we are well-served by a strong and ever-stronger inner pulse. And this is best developed with a metronome.

If we trust our “ear” or “feeling” to organize our rhythm, we will very often miss the mark. We may not be aware of it at the time. We may convince ourselves that we played perfect. But later listening may tell another story.

In our daily practice, few exercises will lead to more lasting benefit than those practiced with a metronome. Each click is an investment in our ability to play with ease, motion, and natural grace.

Over time, we better master our craft. We learn the ideal touch, the ideal pressure. We play with larger ideas and concepts. We may not play everything perfectly, but we say something honest and genuine. And this is worth the daily work.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

Hi allen, it amazes me how good and precise your teachings are. The best thing I ever did was to download a piece of music from you and to listen to your videos. The enjoyment I now have from playing is ten fold. Thanks!



~ Tony Christopher

-Tony Christopher
I just started level 1C...I was able to look at a Carulli piece, albeit a simple one, and understand it. And that understanding allowed me to play it much more easily on the first run through, and I expect it will allow me to make it fully musical at tempo quite soon. That's a huge personal victory for me. Until very recently my mindset was: "Notes on a page. Jimi didn't need them and I don't either." But I ain't Jimi, and now I want those notes on a page.
My work in CGS, even at these early levels, got me to that personal breakthrough. And that's given me more confidence that continued work will get me to greater places in due time. So to answer your question: yes, I absolutely feel like I'm making headway and moving forward in my playing. Thank you for that.
~ Matthew Ecker


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