To Accent Drama, Pianist Modulates To Method Acting

At Juilliard, Konstatin Soukhovetski is translating principles of the Stanislavski acting method to aid in piano performance. (YouTube image)

NEW YORK – Since starting his professional journey at the Moscow State Satire Theater, the Russian-born pianist, actor, and producer Konstantin Soukhovetski has applied the famed Stanislavski method acting technique of emotional recall and inner narrative creation to improve communicative skills for instrumentalists – starting with himself.

Now Soukhovetski is bringing his novel approach to students at the Juilliard School in a course titled Narrative Musicianship. The key objectives, he says, are to improve memorization, limit stage fright, and initiate more free and vivid performances.

“Ultimately, every great performance is narrative, letting the audience partake in the experience the performer creates on stage,” Soukhovetski says. “Great musicians are great storytellers, many of them perhaps unconsciously, but there has never been a system available to performers that explains how to access this ability reliably. Many teachers touch upon it, some imply it during lessons, but rarely is it something a student can clearly grasp. What does it mean being asked to ‘play more deeply, or profoundly,’ ‘with feeling.’ What kind of feeling?

“As pianists we are trained to identify music’s language on our instrument, become adept in technical problem solving, music’s stylistic constraints, etc., but not necessarily how to create an artistic impetus out of these requirements.”

Soukhovetski’s proposal to offer his insights as a pedagogue came just before the pandemic’s complete halt of all scholastic life as we know it. He had been looking into doing more teaching, and then, at the beginning of March during the last week before the shutdown (and while substitute teaching for his former mentor at Juilliard, pianist Jerome Lowenthal), Soukhovetski decided to pitch his course. This October, it will be offered as part of Juilliard’s online syllabus with a concentration on piano repertoire; he hopes to expand it soon for various instrumentalists.

Excerpt from a set of lectures on the same topic that Soukhovetski gave at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music in October 2019.

Soukhovetski’s creative artistry and vibrant persona take him center stage in a large scope of dynamic projects that range from performances of his own opera transcriptions to creating reality TV. With entrepreneurial tenacity, he has turned his longtime involvement with Pianofest in the Hamptons, Paul Schenly’s summer intensive for pianists, into filmed productions of The Real Pianists of the Hamptons. His passion for opera has led to ongoing collaborations, including recent libretto commissions with composer Polina Nazaykinskaya by Opera Mississippi and the Garth Newel Foundation.

“Opera, containing sung music and text, is narrative by definition, and requires singers to train to act out their characters,” says Soukhovetski. “My own approach to music as a pianist is rather that of an actor as well. Creating characters, inventing their lives, and animating music for me – and consequently for the listener – has become infinitely more exciting when practicing and performing at the piano.”

Playing characters that go beyond music’s tactile experience into a tangible story enlivens the encounter and teaches us of how to navigate more naturally within the very unnatural setting of the on-stage reality, Soukhovetski says. This, in turn, allows us to feel more secure and to re-create the composer’s truth with more freedom, in a sense adapting one’s own playbook to the score while also encouraging deeper soul-searching within our own emotions and experiences.

“Unlike with programmatic music, where the connotation of musical abstraction is shared with an audience, allowing listeners to follow its specific meaning – for example: Symphonie fantastique, Isle of the Dead, Also sprach Zarathustra – in Narrative Musicianship, the key to success is for it to remain secret,” he says. “Once you create your narrative and characterization, it is imperative to keep it alive only within your imagination – for once you start sharing the details with the world, it creates projections of expectations on the part of the audience, which diminish its results.”

Narrative Musicianship, Soukhovetski says, equips the performer with “a rich and multi-dimensional inner world of the character determined by his or her imagination, and lifts the music off the page with the true conviction and sincerity of a method actor, digging into a character at hand.”

German-born American music journalist Ilona Oltuski is founder and artistic director of GetClassical and the outreach program GetClassical In School. She has written for Classical Post, Naxos Deutschland, Sequenza21, Listen Magazine, Chamber Music Today, Moment Magazine and PianoNews.