Finding balance can be hard for a musician, but Elena Urioste uses yoga to help her achieve a healthy mind and body. Toby Deller interviews

‘I think balance is the name of the game for me,’ says US-born violinist Elena Urioste. ‘You have to balance competence – proficiency on your instrument – and understanding of the intellectual components of the music – the history, the traditions – but then leave space for surprise and exploration. I think it’s a very delicate balance of the three but the beauty of being in this profession is finding that balance in our own music-making and with colleagues.’

Among Urioste’s colleagues, alongside the numerous major US and international symphony orchestras with whom she has played concertos, are the Chineke! Orchestra. She returns, three years after playing with them as part of the orchestra, as soloist in the concerto by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor which she will perform on a tour of northern Europe that begins in London. Indeed, it was in London, where she now has a home, that her relationship with the UK began exactly a decade ago as one of the first recipients of a London Music Masters award.

Although the award gave her a platform at venues such as Wigmore Hall, something that helped her become a BBC New Generation Artist in 2012-14, it also gave her the chance to continue the kind of work that she was exposed to in the US through the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization. The social justice organisation dedicated to transforming lives through diversity in the arts runs many programmes and initiatives including an all-black and Latinx orchestra and a competition for soloists, whose junior and senior categories Urioste won in 2003 and 2007.

‘My dad is Basque and Mexican and my mom is Sicilian, Russian and Hungarian. I present as probably Mexican – I tick the Hispanic box when asked, because it’s the biggest fraction of the pie chart. So when I found out I was eligible to do Sphinx in the first place when I was 16, I didn’t really have any expectations. I thought I would go do my first national competition, see how it felt. I had to prepare that repertoire for upcoming college auditions anyway, so I didn’t really have anything in mind. But when I walked out to play with this entirely black and Hispanic orchestra, a piece of my heart that I didn’t know I had been missing just slotted into place.’

It was also around a decade ago, suffering from pain and numbness in her right arm while a student at the Curtis Institute, that she discovered another missing part of her life: yoga. Bikram yoga, to be precise, and the practice not only helped eradicate the problem but has become a foundation in the way she approaches life as a performer. Indeed, she is such a strong advocate for yoga for musicians that in 2017 she and Melissa White, fellow violinist and kindred spirit, set up Intermission, a series of yoga retreats and getaways for musicians and students that has extended from its original base in Vermont to other locations, including in the UK.

“You can choose to be stuffy and archaic and a crankypants, or you can choose joy and humour and curiosity”

Urioste is sanguine about the risk that the hands-on approach she takes in running Intermission might have a detrimental effect on her performing career. For one thing, her playing opportunities have diversified recently anyway, in particular through her collaboration with pianist Tom Poster – they perform widely in recitals and their first album Estrellita will soon be followed by a disc of Grieg.

‘Perhaps it has turned off people here and there and I’ll never really know but I’m fine with that because at the moment I’m very pleased with the balance. I’m still standing up in front of orchestras which fulfils one part of my soul and my personality. I’m playing more chamber music – that I find so deeply fulfilling. I feel in the last few years, in partnership with Tom, I’ve really started to find my people, whose musicianship I respect but whose work style I find really fun.’

The flexible-member chamber ensemble they direct together is one outlet for that. ‘It’s really Tom’s brainchild: he has started a chamber music collective called the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective, the real basis of which is just excellent musicians coming together to play chamber music. But also celebrating diversity in all forms: age, race, nationality, orientation, background.’ It is also something of an attempt to focus on a collaborative way of making music, in contrast to a more deferential approach that she worries may much sway in some quarters.

‘I had a chamber music experience that left me with mixed feelings because on the one hand I think it is important to observe the structure and traditions and practices of Brahms. But on the other hand I don’t think you should be discouraged from simply exploring, and I bristled a few times at being told there was a right and wrong way to do things, rather than coming to a collective decision as a group through doing and through questioning rather than just telling and obeying.’

She thinks this may partly reflect her American training and its emphasis on mastering one’s instrument over the more European interest in historical traditions and performance practices, something that she freely admits has its own problems. ‘Just simply clocking hours and hours and drilling things so that you achieve some predetermined level of perfection: I deeply disagree with that as well.’

Once again, it’s a question of balance and collegiality. ‘I don’t want to make music with total disregard for where it came from and how it was constructed and how it has evolved but there has to be room for looking forward to how it could be like nothing that’s come before. And I also think that if you’re not comfortable as a performer or, more importantly, as a person, there’s no way you’ll be able to convey any message, let alone the one the composer possibly intended for you to convey. So you also have to find the balance between the composer’s wishes – which, by the way, we’ll probably never know – and your own capacity as a human and as a conduit to let it pass through you. And I think there’s a way, both as a colleague and a teacher, of interacting with your fellow musicians that lifts them up rather than cuts them down and that’s maybe something that needs a little more time and attention in our profession.’

Elena Urioste plays with Chineke! Orchestra at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 7 November, with concerts thereafter in Bruges, Amsterdam, Cologne, Antwerp and Aachen.


On yoga

Musicians need some sort of mindful movement practice that gets them to look at the body as a whole unit. I think it’s crazy that musical education is so focused on only the bare minimum pieces of the body that produce sound for whatever instrument that is.

One thing that yoga has taught me a lot is that we have zero control over anything except how we choose to react. And it is a choice. So you can choose to be stuffy and archaic and a crankypants, or you can choose joy and humour and curiosity and you can choose to be fascinated by a process rather than discouraged. You can choose to have a beginner’s mindset or you can choose to believe you know everything already and have all the answers. Everything is a choice and I feel like once you start living and acting with that in mind, actually, possibilities become quite limitless.

On Britain and the USA

Something about the more typical British reserve somehow makes me want to be more outgoing, more stereotypically American: overtly friendly and maybe a little loud. How it brings out my garish American roots, it just makes me want to express myself more vibrantly.

On attitude

When I do feel confined or restrained in my music making because of traditions or difficult colleagues or the patriarchy, it does make me incredibly grateful for my own upbringing in America which was very much built upon the idea, which my parents are entirely responsible for, that it doesn’t matter that you’re a woman, it doesn’t matter that you’re of mixed ethnicities. Be a strong person, be a kind person, strive for excellence and then the possibilities are limitless. I think there’s really something to that and I love that sort of generosity of thinking that is inherent in a lot of American culture. Sometimes it can border on delusional but this idea of just be kind, be outgoing, smile if it feels appropriate…