Like most twins, Sonja and Shanti Sungkono have been intertwined since birth. While they are not identical twins, the talented pianists’ lives have mirrored each other. They started to study the piano together at age 5 in Jakarta, their hometown, and both pursued careers as professional musicians in Germany as young women.
“Our father went to a Dutch school, so he was influenced by European culture from an early age,” Sonja said, explaining the sisters’ early introduction to Western classical music.
Their father, Shanti explained with a laugh, would always bring home music by Beethoven, Schumann and other Western composers, even though as children, they didn’t really appreciate that kind of music. Still, their father insists that this early introduction unconsciously developed his daughters’ taste for classical music.
But it was their mother who taught her two youngest daughters — Sonja and Shanti have four older sisters — how to play the piano before deciding that they should get private lessons. In those early days in Jakarta, however, playing the piano was seen as nothing more than a hobby.
All that changed when Sonja and Shanti moved to Berlin almost 20 years ago, at the age of 19. “We initially planned to go our separate ways once in Berlin, because as twins, you feel like you need to split up to become your own person,” Sonja said.
“But when we were accepted at the renowned University of Arts to study piano and music education, it was our chance to stay here,” Shanti said.
When they started out in 1994, they could not have imagined they would be able to turn their passion into a profession.
“Those were tough times, nonstop practicing, sometimes waiting for hours for an empty room, but we really enjoyed our studies,” Sonja said.
“Not many people understand how much time we had to invest to be able to get where we are now,” she added. “We basically didn’t have a single free minute. Sometimes, people don’t understand all the hard work that was necessary and think we have become arrogant.”
While still at the university, Sonja and Shanti built up their network and began to perform. With the help of a music agency, they got more and more gigs. Together, they entered and won a couple of competitions. They also started teaching, something both continue to do.
After finishing university, they had difficulty adjusting to life as artists, which remained challenging even though they had made a name for themselves in Berlin. “Even simple things, like finding a new apartment, suddenly became a problem because most landlords don’t want two pianists, each with her own piano, as tenants,” Sonja said.
But they did not give up. They managed to book several performances a month and were invited to play abroad, including in Italy and the United States. Today, their repertoire ranges from classical to contemporary and, during some recitals, they have included pieces by Indonesian composers, to introduce their homeland to foreign audiences. The twins have also released four albums.
While they continue to collaborate professionally, the sisters have pursued separate lives away from music, including starting families. “Just imagine, we not only lived together and saw each other every day, we also worked together,” Shanti said. “At some point, you simply need to take some time off for personal development. Of course, we are still very close; that is probably normal with twins.”
Artistically, however, they know that they are at their best as a duo.
“As much as we wanted to be individuals, career-wise, it helps a lot that we are sisters,” Shanti explained. “We understand each other. If, for example, my son is sick and I can’t practice, then Sonja of course shows a lot of sympathy. I don’t think it would be that easy if I were playing with somebody else.”
They both used to practice four to six hours every day, but now sometimes they don’t touch the piano at all for days because they are taking care of their children.
“We practice in between cooking dinner, doing the laundry and picking up the kids from kindergarten,” Sonja said. “Even if it is only 20 or 30 minutes, it is absolutely necessary if you want to stay in the business.”
This mutual understanding and the strong bond typical of twins also comes in handy during performances. If one of them makes a mistake, the other one can easily cover up by quickly improvising; most of the time, the audience remains blissfully unaware of what just happened on stage.
Since Sonja and Shanti have become mothers, they have cut back on performing and practicing. Sonja’s son is two and Shanti’s is seven. “It is not easy to balance our careers and our families, but we still want both,” Sonja said.
The sisters’ biggest selling factor — that they are twins who only perform together — is also one of their greatest obstacles. Not all event organizers are ready to pay a double fee and sometimes they don’t even have the capacity for two pianos.
But Sonja and Shanti decided long ago that they would only perform as a duo. That, however, may change in the future. While pianists at heart, the sisters say it is possible they could eventually quit playing professionally and pursue other passions.
“But for now, we really enjoy playing together,” Sonja said. “We are also quite picky when it comes to performing. Even though it’s very competitive in Berlin we won’t play just anywhere.”
Or in anything. An event organizer once approached the sisters and offered to pay them above their normal fee if they would be willing to perform in skimpy outfits. “I was quite speechless and wasn’t sure if they were serious or not,” Sonja said. “Of course we declined. Once you start doing that, you can never rebuild your reputation.”
They weren’t willing to “sell themselves out” for money or fame, Shanti said. “Some people will do just about anything to become famous,” she said. “But there are lines we definitely will never cross.”
“Maybe we’re boring, but who cares,” Sonja said with a laugh. “We normally wear pretty conservative clothes, but we’ll sometimes perform in a traditional kebaya.”
While they have established themselves as successful pianists in Germany, Shanti and Sonja remain relatively unknown in Indonesia, where most people don’t follow Western classical music.
In 2005, Sonja and Shanti performed at the Dharmawangsa Hotel in Jakarta, their only piano recital in Indonesia to date.
“We actually would like to make more contacts in Indonesia and enter the music scene there,” Sonja said. “We are open to expanding our opportunities and putting the effort into making that happen eventually.”
Sonja recently visited her family in Jakarta after being away for more than six years. Shanti, however, tries to travel to Indonesia every two years.
Maybe it’s because of the frequency of her visits that she seems able to cope with the horrendous traffic in Jakarta much better than her sister. “It drives me crazy,” she said with a laugh. “I really don’t think I could handle it on a daily basis.”
For more information about Sonja and Shanti Sungkono, visit www.klavierduo-sungkono.de