(A version of this post recently appeared in Strad Magazine. For the purposes of this blog, American spellings and a few omissions have been restored.)
On Mindfulness In Music
Elena Urioste & Melissa White
Until a few years ago, neither of us had never given much thought to the idea of mindfulness, paradoxical as that may sound. The concept was undeniably appealing, as one never wants to live thoughtlessly, or without exhibiting care for oneself, others, and our surroundings; but we had no idea how to go about practicing it, or even what it meant, really. The cynics in us wondered if the concept bordered on hokey: surely practicing mindfulness was a gateway drug to healing oils, crystals, and statements like “My chakras feel so open today!” (For the record, we both now enjoy, say, and are enthusiastically prepared to defend all of the above.)
Despite its New Age-y associations, mindfulness is an incredibly broad term, and a personal one at that, much in the way that spirituality encompasses a vast territory yet is highly specific to each individual. To the two of us – dear friends, fellow violinists and yoginis, and now co-founders of Intermission Sessions & Retreat – mindfulness simply means that we are moving through our lives, musical and otherwise, with awareness, engagement, and care.
Classical musicians have been taught from an early age that making music is an emotional undertaking, and as we progress through our studies, an intellectual and scholarly pursuit; unfortunately for most of us, nowhere along our journey has the importance of physical care been emphasized. In case there was any doubt: musicians are athletes. One glance at us once we’ve walked offstage – exhausted, disheveled, drenched in sweat – confirms that we’ve not only been pouring our hearts into our music, but also our bodies. Thus, like athletes, we should be encouraged to nurture, prepare, and congratulate our bodies for performing those miraculous feats of which they are capable.
Without getting too specific or pointing fingers, the field of classical music is still suffering from a tradition of playing and teaching that promotes a “play through the pain” mentality. If we miss a note, we’re supposed to drill it a hundred times in the practice room to ensure that we’ll never miss it again, forever and ever amen. It’s good to practice for four hours, right? Why not do SEVEN!? We trudge through pages of thirds and octaves and tenths until our hands atrophy, not once stopping to stretch our arms or question how any of this might be serving The Big Picture.
Athletes, on the other hand, do everything in their power to keep themselves in peak condition: they stretch before and after practices, games, or performances; they strategically counteract the motions they do for hours upon end; they receive bodywork and physical therapy; they eat sensibly; they rest. After all, athletes are their own instruments, their bodies vehicles for self-expression. But despite even the best upkeep, bodies can malfunction, and the longer we push the body when compromised, the greater the ramifications over time. Athletes also seem to understand that while injuries are of course devastating – to their teams, families, fans, and most of all to themselves – there is certainly no shame in admitting to pain or fatigue, and nothing productive can come from avoiding the subject.
Musicians are much more shadowy regarding lapses in physical health. Is it because we’re afraid that employment opportunities might slip through our fingers if we require a few days, weeks, or even months off? Are we embarrassed to admit that we may have been doing something wrong? Will our colleagues or mentors view us as weak? Or are we naïve enough to believe that the body is just supposed to behave perfectly for us throughout decades of repetitive motions?
Musical institutions are gradually becoming wise to the fact that some sort of mindfulness or wellness component might benefit their curriculums, though few have managed to implement the concepts in ways that permeate or encourage symbiosis with the music itself. Musicians of all ages are at risk of injury, strain, or burn-out; yet for some reason the stigma surrounding these afflictions still renders the topic largely unapproachable in our field. Applying mindfulness of any flavor – being focused, thoughtful, kind, gentle, in touch with a higher power – to our craft, particularly in the way we approach our instruments physically, can be the first step towards a much more positive experience creating and performing music.
For the two of us, mindfulness means that we are truly paying attention to what is going into and coming out of our instruments. It means never operating on auto-pilot, drilling passages just for the sake of it, or clocking an arbitrarily high number of hours in the practice room in the hopes of impressing our friends or fans. Mindfulness means caring for our bodies, focusing on our breath, NEVER playing through pain, and truly observing, with curiosity rather than judgement, what is happening physically and musically. Accessing a mindful state has not always been easy or straightforward, and though there are any number of pathways towards mindfulness, the key to our own discovery was through a deep and extensive exploration of yoga.
Unbeknownst to each other, the two of us stumbled upon our respective yoga practices at exactly the same time in two different cities. Upon discovering each other’s new passion for yoga, we added this to our list of commonalities (we both discovered the violin via Sesame Street, attended the Curtis Institute and ENCORE School for Strings, and are past winners of the Sphinx Competition) and began to practice together whenever our schedules allowed. Over the past eight years, the benefits that we have both experienced have been innumerable, from improved muscular control in our violin playing and an increase in self-discipline to a greater sense of peace with the world in general. Both active teachers within our respective musical careers, we have often found ourselves advising students to employ principles that we’ve learned in yoga classes as much as those from our own musical studies. The truth is, the two fields are inextricably linked, and out of this realization our idea for Intermission Sessions & Retreat was born.
We often reminisce about our formative years of musical training and how, when we were at the apexes of our practicing careers (quantitatively, that is; certainly not in terms of sensibility or productivity!) and our muscles and joints were at their most impressionable, we wish we had been introduced to a gentle, mindful yoga practice to help us become better attuned to our physical selves. We might have discovered at the age of 16, rather than 30, how to plant our feet onstage in a way that afforded a greater sense of stability and calm. We might have learned how to breathe from the bottoms of our lungs to more effectively calm our nerves and thus eliminate years of bow-shaking. We might have known to treat our bodies with respect and compassion instead of being willfully ignorant about what exactly was causing us pain and how to remedy it. With each passing yoga class, we become more attuned to our bodies, our breath, and when we’re really paying attention, the true peaceful centers of ourselves. We are so eager for our students and colleagues to discover these and countless other benefits.
To briefly summarize Intermission Sessions & Retreat, all of the above concepts and more are explored through the program’s two branches. In a series of capsule Sessions in conjunction with other musical institutions (schools, festivals, orchestras, etc.), we lead students through light yoga workshops, discuss how a regular yoga practice can be beneficial for musicians, and conduct instrumental masterclasses with an emphasis on transferring what we’ve learned on the yoga mat to music-making, particularly with regard to posture and breath control. For the professional set, we offer Retreats, week-long getaways for seasoned musicians to come together in a supportive, peaceful, communal setting to practice yoga, hone their crafts, and share creative ideas – a sort of yoga retreat meets artist colony. We recently hosted our inaugural Intermission Retreat in Manchester, Vermont for a total of 17 open-hearted, curious musicians, practicing yoga twice a day as a group, making music, and sharing thoughts about how regular yoga, meditation, and mindfulness practices could potentially deepen all of our relationships to music. While the experience as a whole was too magical to describe adequately – and yes, we did discuss and meditate on our chakras and it was AWESOME – we did take a few notes over the course of the week. Here are a few observations:
-Everyone has been so open and candid right off the bat about why they came, what they hope to gain, and about present/past playing injuries.
-Much discussion about why the subject of injury is still such a taboo in the music world (unlike the athletic world) and also how connected the physical and psychological elements of yoga and music are.
-Morning meditation: It was so difficult to be still, and to re-center every time the mind wandered – something that a few people mentioned last night was an issue onstage.
-Morning yoga: Our instructors broke down the mechanics and alignment of weight-bearing on our hands. We stretched our arms from every conceivable angle, and stretched/opened our pec muscles (so often sunken in and contracted while/from playing an instrument). It already feels like a foundation is being built for a safe personal yoga practice moving forward. Furthermore, whether or not we focus on the specific points of our hands or the rotations of our arms that we learned in class, having the option of choosing to focus so deeply and specifically on a small muscle group is an effective way to channel one’s energy – in practice or performance as well as on the yoga mat.
-All of these new skills, from identifying and feeling the motion of a tiny shoulder muscle to the art of meditation in order to reach a place of stillness, must be learned through practice. In the same way that it takes our brains time to carve out a new pathway in order to learn a new fingering, we must teach our neurons to rewire and fire in new ways.
-Meditation is a practice to learn how to cultivate that space in between an action and a reaction. One way to bring the mind back to center is just to keep reimagining the very act of sitting down to meditate. Surely this must apply to being onstage – a way to keep coming back to the heart of the music, and in the center of it all, stillness.
-Through these detail-oriented workshops we are being given the “scales and arpeggios” of yoga: building blocks that provide a solid foundation, and that can add up to any number of possibilities.
-Weight-bearing on feet is very much like weight-bearing on hands and should be done with great care, thought, and evenness. Coming back to balancing on feet is such a good calming mechanism and can be used in performing situations to ground and steady yourself.
By the afternoon of Day 3, we had stopped taking notes. The invaluable physical cues from the yoga classes and the inspiration that we were all drawing upon and applying to our musical lives were slowly giving way to an emotional wave so massive that we – along with many others – didn’t know what had hit us. A powerful shift was working its way through the Retreat and placing us not only in tune with our physical bodies but clearing space inside each of them, and amongst each other, to feel what was happening on a much deeper emotional plane.
However meaningful it had been before, yoga has redefined itself to both of us in the past month. A true, honest yoga practice (which has nothing whatsoever to do with putting the body into fancy, Instagrammable shapes) encourages the body towards an optimal physical state so that whatever is residing inside – music, ideas, feelings, stillness, love – may become uninhibited and limitless. A week of yoga, meditation, and being in the presence of other open, curious, supportive musicians revealed a place of true peace within all of us, available to escape to whenever necessary: while practicing a particularly stressful passage of music; during moments of emotional trauma, past or present; or onstage during a harrowing performance. Yoga has freed up the space and energy to be able to move gently, observe without judgement, and think, act, and play with true mindfulness.
September 27, 2017
“Those Little Things”
A high-level administrator of a reputable orchestra recently paid me what I — and I imagine most of my colleagues would have — perceived as a backhanded compliment mere moments after walking offstage: “You played beautifully; all those little things don’t matter,” she cooed, miming a violinist’s left hand in action. “The important moments — they were beautiful.”
Non-musicians might struggle to empathize with or even identify the offending portion of that remark. To those of us in the performing arts, however, “those little things” — the pianist’s right-hand cramp, rendering that night’s passagework ever-so-slightly clumsier than usual; the dancer’s quivering ankle; the poet’s fleeting memory lapse, delaying the next stanza by milliseconds — are specters that haunt us long after we’ve left the stage. We can be showered with applause, begged for encores, praised to the high heavens in national news publications; but in the moment, “those little things” (which, by the way, we’re painfully aware of without anyone else bringing them to our attention) can feel like billboard-sized scarlet letters, branded indelibly not only onto that one performance but upon our very souls.
And yet when Administrator delivered that morsel of faint praise in the hushed, conspiratorial tone of a fellow musician, rather than descend into a post-concert shame-spiral, I let the sting wash over me briefly, and then, for perhaps the first time in my long history of backhanded-compliment-collecting, I decided to believe her. I chose to acknowledge the condescending bit, catalog it for a future practice session, and then move on to embrace the untainted portion of her congratulations. Because she was, after all, correct: “those little things” truly don’t matter.
I will be brutally honest: I have never once in my life fancied myself a Great Violinist. There are people for whom playing a musical instrument appears to be a physical extension of their own bodies — it must be something to do with their anatomy, the way their arms engulf the wood or metal of their chosen tools. Playing seems natural for them, effortless, like it’s something they could do in their sleep, and — particularly frustrating for folks like me — sometimes even without much in the way of practicing. This may be purely illusory, and I’ve known different types within the “effortless” category: those who have had to work as hard as anyone else to achieve their level of proficiency, and those who simply don’t need to practice all that much. The latter will forever hold mystical appeal to me.
I had incredible first violin teachers, bizarre and endearing characters who urged me to find my voice, experiment with tone color, and read about/listen to music with a voracious appetite from the age of five. Learning how to hold a bow effectively and without tension, however, was not high on their list of priorities. I wasn’t properly set up until a good nine years into my musical studies. I was cursed with The Shakes until the age of 19, and with chronic upper back and shoulder tension until several years after that. It wasn’t until I discovered yoga at the age of 23 that playing the violin — the physical, mechanical process of putting bow to strings — began to make sense to me on a cellular level.
The feedback I received about my violin playing from family members, random audience members, and critics alike was always fairly consistent, even from a young age: “You’re very musical.” “You really connect with the audience.” “You sure looked like you were having fun up there!” “The slow movement was beautiful.” None of these comments were or are even remotely cause for disappointment, yet I always interpreted them as consolation prizes, inserting a mental “It was technically disappointing, but…” before each of them. Despite my best efforts — up to 7 hours of daily practice in high school, fanatical study of the great violinists of eras past, decades of an obsessive daily warm-up routine designed to tackle my greatest technical insecurities — I’ve never once felt capable of dazzling a room with my violinistic showmanship. I’m not known for my third movement of Tchaikovsky Concerto (tubby), or Saint-Saens Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso (meh), or Paganini Caprices (NEVER AGAIN).
But I look back on all of the “goosebump” moments I’ve experienced as a listener, and I can’t remember a single one born out of the above pieces, or really any showpiece, for that matter. Instead, I can recall vividly Arnold Steinhardt’s achingly beautiful downward slides in the Cavatina movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 130. The shimmery warmth of Kreisler’s thirds in his own Caprice Viennois on an old LP. Claude Frank’s slow movement of Schubert’s B-flat Sonata, during which time stood still and every heart in a five-mile radius of Field Concert Hall throbbed at the cosmic shift he had set in motion. And I think to myself, “That stuff matters.”
Mr. Frank had at least one hefty memory slip that night. Kreisler’s intonation can often best be described as “imaginative”. Mr. Steinhardt has been remarkably candid over the years about the slight tremor he experiences in his right hand when his nerves flare up. But to me, the listener, not only do these issues not matter, they actually serve to highlight these musicians’ invaluable qualities. Humanity. Complete emotional investment. An insatiable need to tell both the composer’s stories and their own. These artists can’t help but be overwhelmed by the enormity of the task at hand.
The other day as I slumped under the florescent lights of my local nail salon, trying not to inhale the fumes of the acrylic being fused to my sad, splitting nails, I found myself drawn to the playlist streaming through the speakers: an odd mix of Frank Sinatra, Top 40 hits, and The Bee Gees. As the latter’s “How Deep Is Your Love” (one of my favorite songs of all time — seriously) started up, I found myself the teensiest bit annoyed that it wasn’t the beloved recording from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, but rather a live rendition. Barry Gibb’s intonation had some wonky moments, and as with any piece or song that one has internalized, I realized how used to the prepackaged recorded version I was. Within moments, however, I found my snotty observations giving way to a thorough enjoyment of the performance, as well as genuine curiosity about how Barry might execute the coming turns of phrase. Mostly I was struck by the sound: familiar rendition or not, this was unmistakably the Bee Gees. It could be no one else. What point would there be to a sterile, or worse, unidentifiable performance? What point is there to music that bears no trace of the performer’s relationship to the material?
The Bee Gees are but one example out of millions of musical groups and solo artists. Frank Sinatra, Björk, Louie Armstrong, Mariah Carey, Radiohead, Bing Crosby, Stevie Wonder: every one of these people or ensembles has a sound, recognizable within nanoseconds of listening. If you were to attend any of these artists’ performances, would you feel jilted if they sang a little bit off-key, made up a few lyrics, or even — audible gasp — had a memory slip!? Would you refuse to clap, or ask for your money back?
Why should classical music be any different?
Ahead of one set of performances I gave a few weeks ago, I was asked to complete a written interview for a local news source. One of the prompts was regarding my political stance, which I had made fairly transparent on social media in the weeks following our presidential election. As I began to craft my response, decorum quickly went out the window and I launched into an unabashedly liberal rant with a focus on the artist’s responsibility to communicate to his or her community, particularly in times of turmoil. I had forgotten the extent of my potentially inflammatory logorrhea until the interview was published a few weeks later, and reading it back, I felt a sense of satisfaction that I’ve rarely experienced reviewing my own work. I realized that I do indeed have something to say, and when I put my mind to it, I am reasonably good at saying it. It’s taken years of trial and error, not to mention countless articles published in which I’ve made about as much sense as Sarah Palin, but this article made me feel — dare I say it — proud of myself.
As I forge my way through the beginning of a new decade, I must admit that I have become less bothered by my violinistic limitations. This is not to say that I don’t make it my daily mission to stretch the boundaries of what I am capable of; having had the perspective of an active concert violinist now for nearly 15 years, I feel that I am actually becoming more adept at honing in on the specific areas that demand improvement. But my priorities have begun to shift. I will woodshed for weeks on end to get that pesky passage up to a respectable standard, but now if I tank it in performance, I think — I hope — that my reaction will not be one of irreversible despair, poisoning both the remainder of that night’s performance and my morale for the next several days. Instead, I will acknowledge my oops-moment, vow to work harder for next time, and refocus my energy on telling the story at hand.
There are literally hundreds of violinists who can whiz through the Mendelssohn or Tchaikovsky concertos more proficiently than I can. I admit this fact freely and without self-pity, and I am humbled by it. But I know that I am able to communicate, if not through jaw-dropping displays of technical dexterity, then during those more introspective moments when I can explore the bounds of nostalgia, despair, or ecstasy. I am confident in my ability to effectively convey joy and gratitude for the opportunity at hand. I am honored to be able to connect with the teenager in the masterclass who, until that moment, had never thought to exhale before setting his bow on the string. I delight in my ability to get a roomful of squirmy children quiet and focused on a Bach Sarabande. I am lucky to have writing as an outlet, to be able to pen this unnecessarily long essay and possibly, hopefully, have it strike a chord in someone out there. I may not be a Great Violinist. But I do have something to say, and I hope it’s audible.
April 7, 2017
This weekend marks the 20th anniversary of the Sphinx Organization and Competition. Especially in these trying times, to be able to celebrate such a remarkable organization and mission, even from afar, is an immense gift. Happy birthday, Sphinx! I will miss you this weekend. Here is my #SphinxStory:
I stumbled upon the Sphinx Organization almost by accident. As a young teenager, I overheard a girl in my youth orchestra talking about the Sphinx Competition one Saturday afternoon during a rehearsal break, so I was dimly aware of the organization’s general mission; but it wasn’t until the summer of 2002 when I met Gareth Johnson (the most recent Junior Division winner) that I seriously considered competing. Gareth urged me to apply, and when the deadline rolled around later that year, I gathered my materials and submitted them to my first large-scale competition. I had always been skeptical of those who seemed to thrive on the dirty excitement of the competition circuit — it seemed to me an extremely unhealthy way to look at both music and life — but the message behind Sphinx appeared to be a noble one. I never expected, however, to uncover an entirely new family of musicians, a newfound confidence in my playing, and a sense of pride in what I stood for and represented to the musical community at large.
Because, at its heart, the Sphinx Competition is not just a competition. It is a place for musicians who look a little different than your average American orchestra member/soloist/audience member/etc. to convene, share musical warmth, represent their communities, be ambassadors for our great art form, and become family. By entering and winning the Sphinx Competition in 2003 and 2007, I was not only given the opportunities to solo with some of the country’s best symphony orchestras, but I was able to bring the music I had been so passionate about since the age of two (thanks to Itzhak Perlman and the creative minds behind Sesame Street) to people who might not have otherwise had the chance to be exposed to it. I met other musicians who looked like me, which felt strangely comforting considering I had never given the matter of race much thought, at least with regard to the field of classical music. My parents raised me to be a strong, independent, savvy woman, someone who could do anything she set her mind to — the color of my skin, though something I had certainly been aware of from time to time over the course of my childhood, was never once something I viewed as an obstacle. And yet, upon entering the Sphinx community, it became a point of pride, and a source of great inspiration: as a Hispanic violinist, I now had a responsibility to share everything that had been given to me with communities across the country. Within the blink of an eye, I had a whole network of musicians — a new family — behind me, and every time I step onstage, my aim is to make them proud.
I owe so much of my professional success to the Sphinx Organization: it gave me my first taste of the career and life I had fantasized about since first picking up a violin. More importantly, I am so beyond grateful to everyone involved in the organization for helping to uncover a piece of myself I hadn’t even known I was missing. I am proud to be an ambassador for classical music and indebted to Sphinx for allowing me, with their help and encouragement, to step into that role, one I hope to occupy for the rest of my life.
February 8, 2017
I woke up to a brilliant London sun, a momentary diversion from the darkness of this day. Then I remembered the date, pulled the covers back over my head, and began to cry.
I spent the morning performing to a packed auditorium of North London schoolchildren and the afternoon guiding a group of 10 and 11-year-old violinists through basic yoga and mindfulness principles, followed by a masterclass. Whenever my brain wandered off for a split second and I remembered what was about to happen across the ocean, my eyes would well up with a fresh round of tears. I kept re-centering myself in the room with a reminder that the day’s activities — chamber music, yoga, the peaceful transfer of knowledge and experience — represent the opposite of what DJT stands for. I took, and take, solace in the gentle combat of ignorance with art.
We may not be able to change the minds of many of today’s grown-ups, but we can certainly give children the tools, motivation, and confidence to blossom into dazzlingly bright human beings, unafraid to knock down walls and replace them with pillars of strength, progressive ideas, and inclusion. Looking out at a veritable rainbow of young faces today, alert and eager for the music to begin, I was reminded that humans don’t start out their lives with hate in their hearts, for other skin tones or classical music or opportunities to better themselves. Intolerance is cultivated; conversely, so is kindness, curiosity, and ambition. It is our responsibility to lead by example and encourage the latter set of ideals in our successors.
I feel extraordinarily lucky to have spent this deeply dark day doing the things I love most in the world with some exceptional tiny humans. I feel confident that none of them, having listened to a bit of Kreisler or spent some time breathing deeply, will feel the urge to shoot up a school or deride an entire religion tonight. I predict that they will continue asking thought-provoking questions, making astute observations, and listening to other people as they speak. I hope they will pick up their predecessors’ slack and live by the campsite rule: to leave things in at least as good a state, emotionally and physically, as when they found them.
My eyes, when I close them in a few hours, will contain fewer tears than when I woke up this morning.
On Charleston, SC after two strong cocktails and a moonlit stroll:
I think the reason I’ve always felt so viscerally connected to San Francisco is because it reads like a child’s rendering of a city: houses of periwinkle and marigold and sage in curious shapes, trimmed in scrumptious vanilla icing; hills scattered at random according to the young artist’s fancy; a goofy peninsula surrounded by blue water and green mountains and a giant red bridge, unspoilt by grown-up cautionary mechanisms like high railings or “Caution!” signs. A child would want you to be able to stand in the middle of the sky and gaze out, unobstructed and unencumbered.
Tonight’s walk was taken from a different chapter of our young illustrator’s storybook, one shrouded in moonlight and mystery and dangling moss. In this town, underneath their own layers of icing-porches, the homes are noble and grand and rooted perpendicularly in the peaty earth just below sea level, daring Mother Nature to test them. The wrought-iron archways, tangles of metal middle fingers, beckon suggestively while defiantly reminding visitors that the world below the Mason-Dixon line is magnificent in its complexity. The streets are lined with characters of stone, stucco, brick, and marble, stoic but with hearts and hearths of gold; the oaks just outside mingle effortlessly with the palms and make sultry bedroom eyes at the passersby.
The child has composed a story of unity through diversity, a potentially cloying message when read with grown-up glasses on, but you fail to notice because your breath has been stolen. You have been irreversibly seduced by the flicker of street lanterns and dreams of becoming a member of the Charleston Library Society. You can’t wait to clutch your latest hardback find on those cool, pearly steps, cocooned in an evening blanket of gentle humidity and secrets. Marble pairs so perfectly with dusk, you observe, at the same time that you realize that it was you who drew this illustration decades ago — you just forgot until tonight.
October 16, 2016
In preparation for my upcoming performances of Elgar’s Violin Concerto with the Vermont Symphony and Jaime Laredo, here is my personal homage to Yehudi Menuhin, one of the concerto’s first and greatest champions.
Surprise! Not only was Menuhin a devastatingly beautiful musician, he was quite the dedicated yogi, studying intensively with B.K.S. Iyengar for much of his life.
January 19, 2015
Just over three years ago, my brilliant artist/chef/writer/social facilitator friend Doug gifted me the perfect notebook. Pint-sized and lime green, it quickly charmed the graphite right off my pencil, and before I knew it I was compiling a list of resolutions for 2012. I’d dabbled half-heartedly in the practice of self-betterment for the new year’s sake before, but had never bothered to immortalize my grand plans on paper.
I have cause to believe that my little green notebook and its opening entry of resolutions, printed determinedly and with notable elegance (for one’s penmanship is always on its best behavior at the beginning of an idea), set something positive in motion, that it’s no coincidence that the ensuing three years of my life have been unquestionably the most fulfilling and honest yet. Some of my proudest musical accomplishments have fallen between the icy pillars of January 1, 2012 and January 1, 2015, owed to true hard work — as I was finally, thankfully able to defeat an irritating post-conservatory work ethic slump, the Freshman Fifteen of practice habits — though I won’t pretend that the occasional comet of good luck hasn’t flashed across my life’s sky. The BBC New Generation Artist Scheme, winning $20 at a blackjack table my very first time playing — I have always been, admittedly, a lucky girl. (I will beat you at Monopoly.)
Anyway, perhaps it’s juvenile to think that my notebook is solely responsible for paving the way towards a deeply satisfying three years of musical and personal progress, but it does lead me to contemplate the power of sending out into the universe sentiments that might otherwise lie dormant, buried beneath layers of doubt, laziness, or cobwebs of expressive insecurity. On the off-chance that my notebook, with its now four sets of resolutions and countless ruminations in between, is indeed to be credited, allow me to bookend and celebrate its existence by once again sharing some of its insides. As with any content that finds its way onto this website, this entry was born into my notebook in the form of hasty scrawl and has since graduated to a pleasant adolescence of white Arial text.
To whomever is reading this: thank you, deeply, for humoring me by allowing me to write, and more relevantly, play for you. You can’t possibly know how important you are to me.
New Year’s Resolutions for 2015:
~Drink more water
~Learn to make three great soups
~Always remember to implement the following life lessons:
-Patience. The longer things simmer the better they taste.
-Always consider how your words and actions will affect others before going through with them.
-Never stop exploring, searching.
~Feel emboldened to express and continuously refine life plans and goals — one-year, five-year, etc.
~Buy a bow
~Experiment with Ashtanga yoga
~Write more letters
~Stretch muscles, not ligaments
~Don’t balk at the idea of conversations with strangers
~Figure out how to effectively absorb podcasts
~Expand knitting capabilities past scarves
~Learn and do more inversions
~Start something (festival, workshop, project [although I despise the word "project" when applied to a musical endeavor. It has become the "epic" of nouns. Well actually "epic" is a noun, too, but barely anyone uses it correctly. Or appropriately. This parenthetical inset is getting out of hand.])
~Make writing pithier
January 15, 2015
Below is the original version of an article I was asked to write for BBC Music Magazine, the first in a series of blog posts from the musicians on BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Artist scheme. It is virtually impossible to effectively put into words the feeling of playing Olivier Messiaen’s “Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps”; nonetheless, here are some (irreverent) thoughts on my experience from a few weeks ago.
Having been brought up in a steadfastly non-religious household, choosing to worship instead at the church of “Be nice to people and use your conscience as your guide,” I tend to (perhaps unfairly) approach music rooted in religious faith with a heavy dose of skepticism. Or, to spin it more positively, music has usurped religion as the dominant presence in my life, grounding me through periods of triumph and providing elevation in moments of doubt. What better to believe in than the power of music: a force that transcends words, binds performers and listeners alike in the most intimate of agreements, inspires even the most cynical soul to weep, swell with rapture, or uncover some long-hidden truth?
But Olivier Messiaen, a deeply religious man in the more conventional sense, was able to translate his almost consuming devotion to a higher power into a sound world so vivid, so acutely moving, that it seriously calls into question my lifelong atheism. If this is what it means to truly believe, I can’t help but think as the pulsing heartbeat of his Louange for violin and piano melts away into an eternal silence, then that doesn’t seem like such a bad way to go through life after all.
Shortly after my appointment to the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist scheme, I met with Adam Gatehouse and Emma Bloxham to map out my coming two years and brainstorm repertoire ideas. Having seen the list of my fellow NGAs, a seed immediately planted itself in my head: Messiaen’s “Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps”. I had fallen in love with the piece years before and had the opportunity to perform it only once; upon realizing that among my new colleagues on the scheme were a clarinetist, a cellist, and two pianists, that particular choice of repertoire seemed predestined. “Can we?” I asked Adam and Emma timidly, thinking that such an undertaking, fated and seductive as I chose to view it, seemed improbable due to a host of logistical impediments. But nearly two years, a cycle of new pianists, and countless schedule-juggling emails later, ZZ, Mark, Leonard and I had all thrown our hats into the ring. A recording date was set.
I couldn’t have been alone in my trepidation regarding the decision to record Messiaen’s 50-minute masterpiece after just one day of rehearsals as a quartet, the maximum amount of time that our schedules and Atlantic Ocean-divided living situations would permit. Even with extensive time, detailed score study, and guaranteed collaborative chemistry, how does a group begin to scratch the surface of a work that encapsulates the entire universe!?
Nonetheless, when the four of us met at the BBC Maida Vale studios in London a few weeks ago, we delved into the work with a collective enthusiasm and synchronicity that suggested that we were continuing on in the middle of a chapter together as opposed to squeezing out an awkward introductory paragraph. Perhaps that is simply the nature of the Quatuor, a mammoth work possessing an emotional arsenal that ranges from terrifying to ecstatic to unspeakably tender: it gives the impression of having always existed, and unifies its undertakers accordingly. A group doesn’t assemble the piece, or build an interpretation from scratch; rather, it works to uncover the flow of music which happens to be passing through the room at that given moment.
Despite the emotional gravity of much of the Quatuor, and paying due respect to the appalling conditions of the prison camp where Messiaen penned the majority of the piece, the four of us enjoyed a thoroughly congenial rapport from the get-go, due largely to our clarinetist’s side-splitting sense of humor. For me, that is the mark of a successful collaborative experience: the ability to handle the music seriously, but not ourselves. By the end of our one allocated rehearsal day, we had, to the very best of our ability, wrung as much meaning from the music as our exhausted minds and bodies could manage.
In a way, the eight-hour recording session the following day seemed almost an afterthought. Rather than treat the session as a representation of our definitive interpretation of the piece (a ridiculous mentality for any recording scenario, let alone one for such an abbreviated period of time!), letting the tape roll was merely the sonic equivalent to taking a photograph, a snapshot of the work we had done together on a piece that will forever be mightier than one day, one quartet of musicians, one lifetime of study. Admittedly, there were moments of chaos, of severe fatigue, of frustration at the limited amount of time we had been given for such a monumental undertaking; but there were also goosebumps, and tears of overwhelming joy, and glimpses of that intimacy which can only exist between musicians who are inhabiting the exact same space at the exact same time, accessed through a portal which only great music can open.
Perhaps one day life will lead me to believe in a higher power with the fervor and conviction of Olivier Messiaen. In the meantime, the gift of complete synchronicity, with my colleagues and with music itself, provides for me the wholly consuming magic that spiritual devotion offers for some. And that is more than enough for me, at least for the time being.
July 12, 2014
A few months ago, I was asked to pen a “Practice Diary” for The Strad, one of the go-to magazine publications for all things violin-related. Having read and admired the magazine from the beginning of my violin studies, I was immensely honored to receive the opportunity to combine two of my greatest passions — music and writing — in an article detailing my practice habits over the course of a few days. As is my tendency, however, a brief essay on how I might tackle a piece of music on a given day quickly erupted into a rambling treatise, including a detailed accounting of my warm-up routine (practically unchanged since the age of 14), the monstrous undertaking that is Richard Strauss’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, and even some not-so-subtle yoga proselytizing. My essay was of course miles too long for not only the hard copy publication but also the added online feature that the editors generously offered to me, so I’ve decided to feature the complete article here on my blog in its original form, American spellings firmly intact. If you have a few minutes and the desire to get really, really dorky — enjoy!
Diving into new repertoire is an undeniably exhilarating process, but I have always found revisiting a well-loved piece of music to be equally rewarding. It is not unlike hugging a dear friend after time spent apart: the familiar curves and nuances return instantly, flooding you with memories and generating excitement for future adventures. Of course, there is always room for enhancing the music — or perhaps even for a complete 180˚ turn of intention — but it is infinitely gratifying, even liberating, to return to a piece for which the groundwork has already been laid.
These days, I am inundated with old favorites: the sonatas of Strauss, Ravel, Janacek and Prokofiev; Schubert’s Rondo Brilliante; Vaughan Williams’s “Lark Ascending” and Ravel’s “Tzigane”; and the Elgar Violin Concerto, among others. Just writing out the names of all of those pieces is daunting, let alone tackling them in the practice room! For the sake of brevity (and my sanity), I’ll focus here on one of the heftier works: Richard Strauss’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in E-flat major, Op. 18.
Having performed the Strauss on numerous occasions over the past few years, I’ve gained a sense of familiarity with both the minutiae and the broader scope of the piece. With many of the larger decisions already accounted for (at least for now), this leaves ample time to ensure that the basics are in place. “Maintenance”, as I like to think of it, is one of my favorite types of practicing: it is physically comfortable and can be almost hypnotic, if you succumb to the process. Slow, relaxed practicing intimately acquaints one’s body with one’s instrument, instead of pitting the two against each other through mindless repetition.
First, however: the body must be suitably prepared to meet the rigorous demands of playing an instrument. Here I make a quick diversion out of the practice room and into the yoga studio, because I am of the firm belief that the practice of yoga is one of the best gifts a musician can give him or herself. Yoga warms and lengthens the muscles, making the body more pliable and thus more resilient. Musicians are a specific type of athlete, and we often tend to brush aside the physical demands of our instruments, discounting them as tertiary to “thoughts” and “feelings”. The fact is, without the proper tools to express everything we wish to convey through our music, our thoughts and feelings remain trapped inside of a potentially rigid, contorted shell of a body. Athletes would never dream of performing their various acrobatics without first properly conditioning their bodies — why should musicians, who spend hours each day making intense, repetitive motions, treat themselves any differently?
Even if yoga isn’t exactly up your alley, proper blood flow, an awareness of breath, and malleable muscles are vital to an effective practice session or performance. Before even taking my violin out of its case, I make sure to stretch every part of my arms and back; I roll my neck slowly in all directions; I make gentle, progressively widening circles in the air with my arms. When I feel properly limber and like blood is coursing to the tips of my fingers, only then do I reach for my instrument.
Multitasking has never been my forte, and my warm-up routine is no exception. To ensure that my hands are in tip-top shape, I work each one separately. For my left hand, I begin with the first exercise in Ševčik Part I (my right hand dangling happily at my side, bow-less), feeling the relaxed strength in the bounce of each finger and enjoying the little “thump” each one makes against the fingerboard. I follow up with a few lines of Kreutzer #9, making sure to involve my fourth finger in as many of the patterns as possible. I often joke that my left pinky is “purely ornamental”, but I am determined to utilize and strengthen it, little by little! I continue trilling various combinations of fingers until they feel warm, powerful, and relaxed, and then I move onto vibrato exercises. Placing my wrist right where the fingerboard meets the body of the instrument, I use the wrist to propel the first joint in each finger to wiggle — first once forward, then once backward, then two times forward, then two times backward, and so on. Eventually, the first joint of each finger is loose enough to wiggle in rapid succession, and two or three repeated oscillations melt into a continuous, measured vibrato.
I retrieve my bow and move on to the right hand, beginning with slow open strings. I experiment with bow speed and weight, really familiarizing myself with how my hand feels on the bow and bow feels on the strings. I pretend that my hand is pawing at the strings directly (string players have the disadvantage of having a THING intercepting their bodies and their instruments). I make sure that I am invested, physically and emotionally, in every inch of sound. I practice smooth bow changes, keeping my right hand as still as possible at the frog and making sure it has enough leverage to maintain contact at the tip. I don’t subscribe to the notion that fancy finger or wrist motions are necessary to change the bow smoothly — when the down-bow is over, switch directions; when the up-bow is over, switch directions.
To tie the two hands together, I play “two-fingered scales”: with continuous vibrato, I use only the first and second fingers of my left hand to play simple scales in first and third positions, feeling a warm current connecting the vibrato from each finger to the next, my bow continuing to carve out different depths of sound from the strings. I switch to my second and third fingers, then third and fourth: finally, I feel properly warmed up, connected to my instrument, and ready to melt into my repertoire for the day.
One of the prickliest challenges of the Strauss Sonata is intonation. Technical acrobatics abound for both instruments, and E-flat major is a notoriously tricky key. Unfortunately, no matter how many times I revisit the piece, I can never seem to crack the code to flawless intonation; it simply requires maintenance and patience. I work my way through every note of the piece, no matter its length, with a robust, pure tone, finding the bullseye center of each pitch. Great intonation can not only be heard but felt: when you are truly inside of a pitch, the violin itself recognizes it and resonates accordingly. The tone from the instrument becomes naturally amplified — the violin WANTS to be played in tune! In the cases of notes that have corresponding open strings, you can actually see when you are playing in tune, in addition to hearing and feeling it: say you are playing an E in third position on the G string. If you are truly in the center of the pitch, the E string will vibrate visibly. Granted, not all notes have the advantage of help from an open string, but if you approach each pitch with that goal in mind, you will begin to get a sense of what playing truly in tune really means, and the lure of that “halo” around each note becomes rather addictive.
It may seem that I place a disproportionate amount of time and attention on intonation, but when I feel secure, pitch-wise, I feel infinitely freer to make more advanced creative decisions. For me, intonation has little to do with muscle memory and nearly everything to do with having receptive, clean ears. Establishing a landscape of pure pitches as a base for any piece of music excites my senses, and allows me to build upon a foundation that is alive with color all on its own. (Chalk this up, perhaps, to my mild case of synesthesia!)
Once I’ve worked my way through the entire piece and feel stable and centered in my intonation, I make a checklist. What do I wish to experiment with today? Let’s examine, for instance: truly legato slurs, exaggerated dynamics, and different shades of vibrato to highlight Strauss’s harmonies. I pull apart each phrase, concentrating on one idea at a time. With the ringing, healthy sound from my intonation practice fresh in my ears, I begin to condense a phrase into fewer and fewer bows until eventually I am playing the printed (and ideally the composer’s original) slurs. The amount of bow at my disposal is obviously more limited than when playing each note separately; nonetheless, I strive for the same level of clarity and richness of tone that I was able to achieve with one bow per note. I eliminate any trace of the dreaded “wah-wah” sound by using my right hand’s thumb and second finger to pull the tone through the length of each bow. I make sure to save a bit of room at the end of each stroke so that the bow speed can increase slightly, propelling each bow towards the next and creating a broader legato (and ultimately, a longer musical line). I like to think of how a singer might move from one note to the next, and how the air must spin within his or her lungs in order to support each note according to its place in the phrase. A true legato can be positively intoxicating and should be a lifelong goal towards which to strive, for any breed of musician.
It is a common occurrence for a performer to listen to a recording of his or hers and remark, “But I thought I was doing so much more!” We might feel as though our dynamic range borders on ridiculous, and it may in fact sound that way directly under our ears. By the time a phrase carries to the back of a concert hall, however, many nuances have been held up or lost altogether due to acoustical limitations, audience noise, or sheer distance. In the practice room, I make sure to observe all printed dynamics religiously — not only the decibel levels they suggest, but also the characters. I search for a noble strength in the opening violin line of the Strauss, a probing intimacy in the hushed first phrase of the Improvisation, and a dazzling brilliance in the third movement’s ascending flourishes. I exaggerate each dynamic to the point of vulgarity in the practice room — I apply aural “stage makeup”, if you will — so that when it comes time to perform, I can be certain that my intentions are clear even to someone seated in the last row of the hall. I have yet to hear a performance of myself where I think, “Wow, I think I might have phrased too effectively there.”
I must confess that a lush vibrato is one of my favorite things in the world. I think of some of my favorite musicians — Fritz Kreisler, the members of the Guarneri String Quartet, Frank Sinatra — and a common link between them is how immediately recognizable each is through his respective vibrato. Accordingly, nothing ruffles my feathers more than when a note within a melodic phrase, for no apparent reason other than the inconvenience of the performer, is suddenly devoid of vibrato: a lone, naked note bobbing conspicuously in an otherwise picturesque sea. It should be noted that the intonation section of my practice session is done completely without vibrato, not only for the purpose of hearing each pitch clearly, unimpeded by wiggles, but also to gain a sense of what it feels like to have conscious mental and physical control over my vibrato usage. Vibrato should not be an involuntary spasming of the left hand; rather, it is a tool to bring further shading, personality, and sophistication to each phrase. I experiment with using different parts of the finger to vibrate: the fleshy pad for a round, rich wobble; further onto the tip for the shimmering, ethereal passages scattered throughout the Strauss. I play around with speed and width, coordinating my vibrato usage with that of my bow, making sure the two hands are in complete accordance so as to most clearly highlight the contours of each phrase.
Eventually, I might run through a larger chunk of the piece, attempting to combine the various ideas I have implemented over the course of my practice session. If the accumulated result is dissatisfying, I backtrack and dissect the music again, by phrase or by idea, solidifying one at a time before moving on. By the day’s end, I feel secure, inspired, and thoroughly exhausted.
…And a little stretching after a practice session never hurts, either.
December 6, 2013
The start of the academic calendar year is in full swing, which for me means that it’s time to trade in the comforts of home for the various discomforts of airports. Airports: fluorescent, Chili’s Too-scented, toddler-overrun productivity black holes, and my personal No Exit (particularly when there are slow walkers involved). While I certainly aspire to the habits of my former trio-mate, cellist Carter Brey, who can nonchalantly whip out and delve into his tattered copy of The Brothers Karamazov at LaGuardia, my airport tendencies are regrettably on the shameful end of the spectrum rather than the scholarly.
Calculating the amount of time that I’ve spent sprawled on planes and at gates each month is a task both dizzying and inadvisable, as the realization that I’ve spent most of those hours either drooling on myself while napping on Panda Pillow or stuffing my face with peanut M&Ms is downright humiliating. If only I were capable of utilizing those vast stretches of time to catch up on business emails, or to finally come up with a sensible fingering for that pesky run in the Elgar Concerto! Alas, at the first nauseating whiff of the perfume cloud radiating from Duty Free, my brain turns to mush and the best I can hope for in terms of productivity is reading about the eight new secret ways of remedying my crow’s feet.
…Which brings me to the topic of trashy magazines. This is one toxic vice I am proud to say I’ve kicked over the years… everywhere, that is, EXCEPT AT THE AIRPORT. “Yes, I would love to shell out $8 for this copy of Us Magazine to accompany my sour gummy worms, thank you.” My free hand balls itself into a fist of fury as I hear these words escape from my mouth. Just kidding, I would never utter something like that out loud. Instead, I mumble a nearly inaudible “Thanks!” as I hastily shove my purchases into my bag and reposition my giant headphones and sweatshirt hood over my bowed head so as to ensure my anonymity.
A regular feature of such magazines is “25 Things You Don’t Know About Me” (or some variation thereof), a list made by B-list stars accompanied by pictures of the $300 skincare products they keep in their $3,000 purses. While I thought better of photographing my tattered Whole Foods shopping bag and the Labello chapstick and sweaty yoga mat I store inside of it, here, I have compiled a similar(ly ridicule-worthy) list with a few elaborations/anecdotes, just to prove that I can still write in complete sentences. And so, using hateful, glossy trash as my inspiration, I have attempted to squeeze one teensy drop of productivity out of all those mind-numbing airborne moments wasted ogling over red carpet dresses. Now I will go wash my brain out with peroxide and start Ada, or Ardor.
25 Things You Don’t Know About Me (And Probably Still Won’t Care About Even After You Know Them)
1. I detest asparagus, and certainly not for lack of trying. I have no idea why this is and frankly I’m embarrassed for my mouth that it is unable to make amends with this totally innocuous vegetable.
2. As a child, I was not permitted to own battery-operated toys or gadgets. As I found dolls creepy/boring, this left blocks, Legos, and the occasional stuffed animal to complement my books and art supplies. I can’t thank my parents enough for this rule.
3. I adore orange daylilies.
4. I am completely, unapologetically, perhaps even irrationally dismissive of any piece of writing that includes a misused apostrophe.
5. I have a mild case of synesthesia, which manifests itself in the form of printed letters, spoken words, and musical pitches all having corresponding colors. For example, if I hear or see in print the letter or note A, in my brain it registers as cranberry red; B = varying shades of blue; C = mustard yellow; D = also blue but a bit steelier; and so on. Hues and concentration vary slightly according to surrounding letters/chords/key signatures.
6. I always knew that I wanted to be a concert violinist, but when I was little, it struck me that since concerts were at night, I would need another career to occupy my attention during the day. These “other” occupations ranged from marine biologist to biomedical engineer to neurosurgeon. I still haven’t entirely given up on the hope of becoming a neurosurgeon.
7. I love how toe socks feel.
8. Among my most important childhood influences were Albert Einstein, Kerri Strug, and Ramona Quimby.
9. My baby teeth refused to fall out. 11 of them had to be pulled, in addition to 3 steadfastly impacted wisdom teeth.
10. My desert island album (non-classical) would be Radiohead’s Kid A.
11. All right, if I must… My classical desert island album would be the Guarneri Quartet’s recordings of the late Beethoven string quartets. This is technically a compilation CD spread out onto three discs, but since they come in the same plastic case and this is my fictional desert island scenario, I’m counting them as one.
12. I adore the word “ebullient”, in part because it starts off with my initials, which is kind of narcissistic but it’s still a fun word.
13. Remember how I loved Kerri Strug? Here’s the story of how my admiration for her resulted in a scar below my lower lip. Inspired by Kerri’s heroic performance at the 1996 summer Olympics, I took to cartwheeling around the house whenever possible. This ultimately resulted not in my family’s discovery of my burgeoning gymnastic prowess, as planned, but rather in a crash into my bathroom door frame, lots of blood from the force of a front tooth biting all the way through my lower lip, and a trip to the hospital whereupon I received 8 stitches and began harboring a secret desire to sew people professionally (see #6).
14. I like to eat things in even numbers: 4 strawberries, 200 jellybeans, etc. I am indeed aware that some might deem this a manifestation of the “O.C. Disorder” (don’t call it that)*, but I tend to think that numbers are happier in even groups, and I just wish to make my stomach a peaceful and joyous environment.
15. *I believe that Arrested Development is the funniest, most brilliant show in the whole wide world.
16. Recently I have really gotten into what some refer to as “mixology”, but since I neither own an arm garter nor employ terms like “house-made tincture”, I prefer to call it “bartending”.
17. Try as I might to be gracious, I am deeply resentful of anyone’s up-bow staccato that is better than mine — which, as it turns out, is everyone’s. Everyone’s up-bow staccato is better than mine. My cat could play Hora Staccato with more facility and aplomb than I could ever dream of.
18. My favorite museum (so far) is Il Teatro-Museo Dalí in Figueres, Spain, followed closely by the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris.
19. Whenever I take a post-performance bow, I whisper “rhinoceros” to myself. My first violin teacher instructed me to do this so as to ensure an appropriate bow length.
20. I recently went skydiving and it was the most joyful, freeing, exhilarating experience of my life. I WILL get certified.
21. I have my driver’s license but have not driven a car in over 10 years and have no real plans to do so anytime soon.
22. My favorite type of dream is the variety where you discover a new room in a house or place you thought you knew intimately.
23. Deep down I believe that San Francisco is where I’m meant to live.
24. Among my favorite and most frequently reread books are Lolita, The Phantom Tollbooth, and Goodbye, Columbus.
25. I have a few steadfast beliefs (e.g., leggings are not pants; gluten intolerance is a made-up affliction most of the time) about which one would be hard-pressed to get me to change my opinion.
September 30, 2013
Welcome to www.elenaurioste.com, Version 2.0! Since my website has received a terrific makeover, I’d like to take this opportunity to refresh my resolve to keep a more regular blog. The next few weeks will bring some important firsts for me — the opportunity to record as soloist with an orchestra and an attempt to pack for Berlin and Albuquerque in the same suitcase, for starters — and I will try to keep you updated about my goings-on in my spare moments. For briefer, occasionally snarky morsels of information, please follow me on Twitter or visit my Facebook page. Thank you for dropping by my site, and feel free to take a closer look around!
June 1, 2013