The Stanislavski Method for Orchestral Musicians by Maxim Rubtsov, Principal Flute of the Russian National Orchestra

In this exclusive article for The Flute View, Maxim reveals a few simple truths that lead to success: 1) prepare, 2) immerse yourself in all the arts, 3) play from your heart, 4) believe in yourself.  He advises, “When you play as a soloist, you perform a lot of notes.  You have plenty of time to express yourself.  In orchestral performance, you may have only occasional, short solo passages.  In these bit parts, as compared to a starring solo role in the drama of orchestral performance, you must combine all your energy and skills in just a few notes.” 

Nearly twenty years have passed since I joined the Russian National Orchestra. Not long ago our genius conductor Mikhail Pletnev said to me, “Maxim, you are now the leader and teacher of the orchestra’s entire wind section. Do you know what the Stanislavski Method is?”

“Well,” I stammered, “I think it has to do with the theatre.”

He explained, “The Stanislavski Method is somewhat different if you are a musician, but our work is not that different from ensemble acting.  In order to play, you must do it properly.  In order to do it properly, it must be done with a light touch.  In order to do it with a light touch, it must be done to perfection.”

It is not always easy to understand the wisdom of Mikhail Pletnev, but knowing something about Russian history, theatre, dance, opera, and the infamous “Russian soul,” I figured he meant that I needed to inspire my section of wind players to tap a deep spiritual force that would allow them to express the experience of music.

Like actors in the theatre we musicians ask ourselves, what did the composer mean when he wrote those notes?  Why this tempo, or that rhythm?  What is the character of my instrument, and how will I show it in a phrase or a song?

In my case, I went through quite a life of musical education before I reached this deeper understanding. An essential turning point in my musical journey happened on a rainy day in 1999, when—at the age of 22—I faced my biggest opportunity to play music “properly, with a light touch, and to perfection.”

The Russian National Orchestra had announced an open call for flutists to fill the position of Associate Principal.  At the time, and perhaps still today, the RNO was the most mystical, unique ensemble in Moscow.  The world-famous pianist, winner of the Tchaikovsky competition, Mikhail Pletnev had boldly asked President Gorbachev if he could create his own orchestra, and Gorbachev said yes.  After years of Soviet-style leadership and government control of musical culture, this orchestra was an amazing experiment for Russian musicians.

It was my wildest dream to join the RNO.  But Associate Principal?  It was a huge risk.  I was still a student at the Moscow Conservatory, a boy from Bryansk who liked to play basketball in my spare time.  Some of my professors encouraged me to go for it.  But my major professor emphatically discouraged me from auditioning.  Three of his students were competing for the position, and he would be recommending one of the others, his favorite.  Somehow this made me practice even harder.  No more basketball, I prepared with determination to win a different contest.

On the day of the audition, I was in a good mood as I set out by metro from my dormitory.  My favorite accompanist would be there, and she was my strong supporter.  I considered that the early morning rain was what we call in Russian language a “mushroom” rain, one that brings good luck.

The RNO’s rehearsal space was in an unremarkable room on an upper floor of a bank building.  In the elevator going up, I had a funny feeling. I was with one of my fellow students—“the favorite”—when the door opened, and Mikhail Pletnev entered.  She immediately began to talk to Maestro Pletnev.  I remained silent, listening, unsure what to say.  Was it good that Pletnev would be present at the audition with all the other members of the RNO artistic council?  Or was it a bit frightening to be judged by all the principal players of Moscow’s most exciting new orchestra, as well as its legendary founder-conductor-pianist?

As it always is for flutists, there were 35 or 40 contenders for one position.  Everyone was tuning their instruments, warming up, trying to avoid a calculation of the slim chance of winning.  I assessed the room.  For me, sound is everything.  The place was designed for business meetings. Rows of upholstered seats surrounded the stage.  Neon lights randomly arranged on the ceiling cast a bluish glow.  To my horror, the inartful auditorium had terrible acoustics.  On top of that, a moaning, grinding air conditioner struggled to circulate the damp air.  I consoled myself by thinking, everyone would play the same program in the same bad acoustics:  the first movement of Mozart’s Flute Concerto in D major, the Fauré Fantasie for Flute, and orchestral excerpts from Russian composers.

In our customary way, the audition process started by drawing lots.  In some countries it is common practice for applicants to perform anonymously behind a screen.  No one can see you, so they do not know if you are man or woman, young or old, someone known to be a graduate of a certain school in a certain region, or to have studied with a certain teacher.  In Russia we do not encounter such a method of selection.

I took some time to unfold my piece of paper, and when I saw it, a feeling of panic began to grow in my stomach.  I had drawn #1.  Deep breath. Short prayer.  No time to think.  With a limp smile, I stepped onto the stage and rearranged the music stand to the position I favor.  To this day, I do not feel comfortable playing in the well of the piano.  I prefer to play slightly behind and in front of the accompanist.  This is where I can best hear my flute sound and the piano’s sound, as well as the overall acoustics of the concert hall.

It seemed to me that I played at the limit of my nerves.  I was extremely nervous to be playing in front of venerable and well-known musicians and flutists from all over the country.  Playing first, all the other applicants would listen to me and strive to be better. Was I crazy to think that a student who had not yet finished the conservatory could win the position of Assistant Principal in Moscow’s best orchestra?  And if successful, how would I combine my studies and exams with the serious work of a musician in a constantly touring orchestra?

After Fauré, Pletnev approached the stage.  He asked, “What is that strange noise?”  At first, I thought this was a comment on my playing!  But he was troubled by the noisy air conditioner and ordered a break while someone figured out how to turn it off.  Glad for the pause and glad to be rid of the troublesome noise, I wondered, “What does this mean for my program?”

I drank some water and returned to the stage.  He asked me to repeat Fauré.  Suddenly I realized that he really wanted to hear me.  I played from my heart, as if I were not on the stage of an ugly room but flying above it.  I had conquered my nerves.  The bluish glow around me was transformed into music.

Some days passed before the results were announced.  To my surprise and great joy, I was selected to be the RNO Associate Principal flute.  I was euphoric.  Now, some twenty years later, I am not just the principal flute of an acclaimed orchestra. I have indeed become a Stanislavski Method actor.

Every day for twenty years under Maestro Pletnev’s direction and many of the world’s best conductors, I have gained new impressions.  Vast new experiences have come from hours of practice, reflection, rehearsal and travel through new cultures and repertoires.  I literally take inspiration from the air around me, from the distinct sounds of forests and oceans, and from those people who fully devote themselves to music and our collective creative destiny.  Among my colleagues in the orchestra are some very great musicians, and we have found that all the world is our stage.

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