My Instrument: Elena Urioste
An interview with musician, yogi, writer and entrepreneur Elena Urioste
What makes a person devote their life to the learning of a single instrument?
We’ve been asking some world class artists just what it was that led them to do what they do…..
I can’t actually remember it, although I’ve shared the story so many times it almost feels like I can: I was first introduced to the violin through an episode of Sesame Street when I was two years old. Itzhak Perlman was on the show, chatting and playing, and (according to my parents) something about his music-making enraptured me instantly. I began pestering them for a violin immediately, and not being musicians themselves, they found this rather odd behavior for a two-year-old. “Nevertheless, she persisted” and after three more years of relentless bugging I began taking Suzuki violin lessons at my public (state) school in suburban Philadelphia.
My parents have always been unbelievably supportive and generous with their encouragement (though how any parent can tolerate the screeches of a beginning violin student is beyond me!). They have never been stage parents, and in fact were often nervous about me entering local competitions, wary of some of the more intimidating/calculating moms, dads, and teachers. My parents always believed in my ability and my drive, not only in music but also in my academic studies, and their only stipulation where music was concerned was that I had to meet them halfway: if they were going to support me financially and shuttle me to lessons, rehearsals, and concerts, I had to put in the work. I am so grateful that they raised me with the notion that nothing was beyond my grasp IF I dedicated myself to my dreams — that if I gave the task at hand my full, sincere attention, then my gender, ethnicity, or temperament could never stand in my way. Recently I’ve also become aware of how grateful I am for the vulnerability they allowed me to develop as a performer, that I didn’t always have to feel or display myself as bright, shiny, or invincible. I think part of how I communicate with audiences is through the notion that we all share traits that are quite human, rather than super-human: the desire to be seen, a need for warmth, and that it’s okay not to know all the answers all the time — that connection is the ultimate reward.
When I was much littler, I tended towards big, bold string playing: David Oistrakh, Leonid Kogan, Jacqueline du Pre. As I entered my teenage years, I grew enamored with the Guarneri Quartet and their signature lush sound — dark, mulled, and peppered with scandalously tight half-steps — a gold standard which frankly hasn’t really budged for me in the past 20 years. If I had to pick just one favorite violinist now, it would probably be Fritz Kreisler: to me he’s the Bing Crosby of the violin and I positively melt for his shimmery tone, expression between each note, and perfect imperfections. Close runners-up are Josef Hassid and Ginette Neveu, though their recording libraries are less substantial.
I would attempt to describe the instrument as what I feel is its best: shimmery, warm, golden. I am most attracted to an “old-world” string sound, that of classic Hollywood films and the ensembles backing artists like Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald. To me, a violin sound should wink, sigh, and glow like an ember in the heart. I would say, “Dear listener, please refer to the violin playing in the song ‘When I Fall In Love’ sung by Nat King Cole — now THAT is a sound.”
For pleasure I tend to gravitate to just about everything other than violin recordings: Nat, Frank, and Ella; Radiohead; Stevie Wonder; Whitney Houston; indie folk/pop singers like Phoebe Bridgers, Moses Sumney and Julien Baker; and I have to give a shoutout to a hometown band, Boyz II Men (yes, seriously). Every now and then I’ll pop on a miniature performed by Kreisler or Hassid to remind myself how great the violin can be, but if I listen to classical music for pleasure it’s generally a string quartet (Guarneri!), pianist (Rubinstein!), or larger symphonic work (Mahler Symphony! Strauss tone poem!).
And I certainly don’t listen to my own recordings if I can help it! Occasionally I’ll revisit a track for a few minutes, just to give myself a reality check. It’s funny how my mood can alter my perception of my own playing: some days I’m convinced that I was at my prime at the time of the recording, and on others I can’t believe that I would have immortalized a piece in the way that I did and feel so relieved to have evolved to a new place with it. One thing that I think listening to recordings — my own and others’, whether I love and respect them or not — can be handy for is reminding ourselves that one’s relationship to music is always shifting, always in development, and that a recording is nothing more than a snapshot. It is not an accumulation of efforts or a finished product, but rather a glimpse into one moment in time. Perhaps if the recording had been made a year, a month, a minute later, it would sound entirely different. And isn’t that cool!?
I would LOVE to be able to sing. While I’ve heard quite the opposite from many extraordinary vocalist friends, I still believe that hitting a high note and bathing in its glory must be the most satisfying feeling in the world. Because I will never experience it and thus be able to prove otherwise, I am content to continue basking in my illusion!
The violin is what I know, so it’s the most obvious route into music that I would be able to recommend, but in an ideal world, I would present an array of musical options to someone — the violin, piano, voice, wind and brass instruments minus a few I just wouldn’t want to hear on a regular basis — and give that person the freedom to decide which speaks most directly to him or her. I think an introduction to music is essential for a person’s development: not only is music-making a gift in and of itself, but it builds so many character traits that enhance one’s whole life — discipline, attention to detail, problem-solving, curiosity, sensitivity… the list is endless.
Sometimes when I’m feeling fed up with “the industry”, I lament never having received the chance to say no to the violin, or to select another path, as music is often something that chooses us rather than the other way around. As musicians we give up huge swaths of our childhoods in order to invest in our art, often skewing or stunting the more “normal” parts of our human development. I remember feeling really upset in my twenties, following my first big let-down after an international competition, that I’d never had the chance to seriously pursue or even try anything else. I seriously contemplated switching directions altogether — I wanted to prove that I could excel at something else, that I was in command of my life and my choices, and that I was more than just a show pony who could globe-trot and stage-trot in a long line of contestants. I still stand by those feelings (and I suspect many musicians have a crisis of confidence or questioning of purpose somewhere along the line), but I realize now that it is possible to combine my first love (music) with other interests, rather than abandoning it, to create a fulfilling life for myself. I am proud of the path I’ve forged, not only satisfying my 28-year-long dream of becoming an international concert violinist, but of encouraging music-making in a more compassionate direction through Intermission (www.intermissionsessions.com), donning an Artistic Director cap at my annual festival Chamber Music by the Sea (www.chambermusicbythesea.com), and bringing excellent, diverse humans together via the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective (www.kaleidoscopecc.com). I met my partner, Tom Poster, as well as countless other musical and personal kindred spirits through music, and have the privilege of communicating with and connecting humans all over the world.
So no, I have no regrets…..