Ilya Shmukler still remembers his last performance at the 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition before he was eliminated after the quarterfinal round. As soon as the then-22-year-old arrived back at his host family’s house, he went to the bedroom, locked the door and thought about what had happened.

“I knew I needed to grow some experience in my soul,” Shmukler said. “I was in total agreement with the jury members.”

Now at age 27, Shmukler is back at the competition and is one of six remaining pianists with the potential to win the gold.

Two years after his first Cliburn Competition, he moved from his hometown of Moscow to Kansas City, Missouri and currently trains under Stanislav Ioudenitch at the International Center for Music at Park University. Ioudenitch, was a gold-medal winner in the 2001 Cliburn Competition, a title he shared with Olga Kern

The difference has been notable to Marilyn Brewster, who alongside her husband, Brad, served as a host family to Shmukler in 2017 and again this year.

Shmukler sits next to host parents Brad and Marilyn Brewster. Over the past five years, the Brewsters have attended Shmukler’s recitals and performances at other competitions. (Marcheta Fornoff | Fort Worth Report)

He’s had a huge influence on Ilya, and Ilya was quite mature for a 22-year-old five years ago,” Marilyn Brewster said. “And at 27, he’s even more composed and mature. You can tell that he’s been studying with a gold medalist, concert pianist. He had good instructors in Moscow, but Ioudenitch has made a huge change.”

They have stayed close with Shmukler, even in the gap between Cliburn competitions. They’ve both made a point to travel to see Shmukler’s recitals or support him in other competitions when they can; the pair has even celebrated New Year’s Eve with Shmukler, complete with a video call with his family back home in Russia.

Having witnessed this growth firsthand, Brewster says that Ioudenitch’s holistic approach is what sets him apart.

He doesn’t just meet them for a lesson at 3 every Wednesday, or whatever it is. He is involved in their lives. He’s a true mentor,” she explained. “He and his wife invite their students into their home, and they make huge meals and gather around the table. And on Thursdays, he takes them to museums and they study works of art. It’s a tremendous program.”

“I grew as a musician there,” Shmukler agreed. “I’ve been studying there for almost three years already, and I think Ilya Shmukler before and Ilya Shmukler now are two different people.”

He credits his experiences at Park and at the Cliburn for helping him to grow as an artist, not just technically, but mentally as well. An adage that he leans on now is that the best way to be relaxed on stage is to come well-prepared.

Before he steps onto the stage, he has a ritual where he plays the first page of his piece in his head.

I’m playing the piece in my mind and I’m thinking about the details. What should I do with this note? What should I do with that note?” He said. “And that helps me not to feel stress at all. So when I’m concentrated on other things, I’m not thinking about, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to play at the biggest competition in the world.’”

After he walks off the stage, Shmukler might feel confident about a performance, but it’s rare if he doesn’t think of something he wants to improve upon.

This is the process. If you think that this is your finish line after your performance and (there’s) nothing to improve, you should probably stop playing the piano because the process is nonstop,” he said.

But at a competition in Japan, Shmukler had one of those rare moments. After he performed Ravel’s “Gaspard De La Nuit,” he walked off stage feeling completely satisfied. He won that competition and hasn’t performed the piece since. 

“And I’ll probably never play it again until I listen to it and think that there are some things to improve,” he said.

Instead, his Cliburn repertoire has included works from Medtner to Hough and Prokofiev.

He has one performance remaining in the competition where he’ll take on ​​Grieg’s “Piano Concerto in A Minor, op. 16.” 

“The main thing is about the inspiration that comes to you,” Shmukler said. “God gives you inspiration because you are well-prepared. If you don’t prepare at all, he will not give you inspiration at all. So you should be prepared, and after that it’s all about luck.”

Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at marcheta.fornoff@fortworthreport.org or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Marcheta Fornoff

For just over seven years Marcheta Fornoff performed the high wire act of producing a live morning news program on Minnesota Public Radio. She led a small, but nimble team to cover everything from politics...