Review: “The Acting Principles of Constantin Stanislavski and Their Relevance to Choral Conducting”

Okay, I confess–as good as the Choral Journal is, I rarely read it all the way through or even necessarily give the articles more than a good skim. Most of the time they are Very Interesting Articles That Have Nothing To Do With My Choral Life, so I give them a look, pass by them, and move on.

This month, however, I ran across this article: “The Acting Principles of Constantin Stanislavski and Their Relevance to Choral Conducting” by Ryan Hebert of the University of Tampa. And this one I did read all the way through. And will bookmark it for my research. Very, very interesting.

The article looks at the Stanislavski method and its relationship to all prior modes of acting instruction–basically, in Stanislavski one does not seek to copy or imitate the emotion/state of being called for in the text but to actually feel or be whatever is being asked for, to re-create rather than re-present the sense of the theatrical moment. And it looks at choral conducting, and wonders if the same principles could be applied there.

Brilliant question.  Revolutionary and really, really smart idea. And it’s a very solid article, though I’m not sure the author goes far enough to really embrace what seems to me to be the real premise of the article, i.e. that conducting is about more than gesture and communication but touches on something deeper (though admittedly that very premise is by its nature something all but impossible to access by accepted scholarly discourse; I still think Garnett has gone miles further than anyone before or since in that direction).

(Okay, and now I’m cracking up–when I went over to her blog to link here, what’s her latest entry but her processing of Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares. No mention there whether she saw the CJ article, but it’s a very fun synchronicity…and she brings up an interesting correlation between Stanislavski and Schenker, which I will have to think about further…but I love synchronicity.)

Hebert also brings up, early in the article, the idea that extraneous gesture and non-verbal communication becomes a barrier to the ensemble’s apprehension of what the conductor is trying to get across, a great point and an undeniable reality which he then IMO fails to really connect to the Stanislavski information. (It makes me wonder if this article may be picked out of a larger document like a dissertation or something, and whether it’s pursued more in the larger version, like watching an otherwise really good movie and wondering if some minor plot points are connected in material that’s left on the cutting-room floor.)  And when he speaks of the three models of acting (mechanical, representative, and belief), he doesn’t quite say–or say whether Stanislavski says–that all three are of great importance, that acting from “belief” without the basics of well-thought-out mechanics and representation will be sloppy and not quite successful. And that a poor or imbalanced synthesis of the three is exactly what will result in those extraneous gestures. (To be fair, it’s possible he doesn’t say this because he doesn’t believe it’s true. It’s what I totally believe, though.)

He also, IMO, gets a little too attached to applying these principles to the text of the music–the idea that the reason this connection applies to choral music and perhaps not orchestral music is because choral music is set to text.  But that’s way too small a connection.  Look, for example, at the 573 bajillion Mass settings and 94.634 Requiem settings in the rep; they are all set to the same texts, but to analyze the text without looking at the content of the music–which is essentially the composers‘ processing of that text set against what is inside his or her experience/emotion/belief, is obviously not going to cut it.

However, all my nitpicking aside–to me, the hallmark of a good article, and an important one, is that it presents a perspective that makes one go, “Wow, I never thought of it that way!”–and better still, to make one go, “Yeah, that’s interesting, but you didn’t go to this and this and this and this” and get other people pushing and questioning your ideas, taking them even further. By that measure, this is a superb article. It’s rare that something comes along that makes me want to make room in my musical cosmology for additional furniture, but this has me redoing the interior design. Just a little. There’s a nice spot over under the window there…

I wonder if I’ll have room in my program to take an acting class?

One comment

  • Hi there,
    Just for the record, I didn’t see the article in the Choral Journal – it really is pure synchronicity this time! Looks interesting though – I do like an article that makes you talk back to it.

    p.s. Thanks for the kind words about the book.

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