Violinist, Yogi, and FTT Alum: Meet Elena Urioste

Photo Credit: Alessandra Tinozzi

Violinist Elena Urioste recently joined From the Top as co-host of the NPR’s From the Top show recorded in Key West in January 2020. Elena’s career has spanned from soloing with major orchestras in the United States and abroad to chamber music performances at major festivals, and extensive recital performance. Last week, she released her new album, “To The Spring”, featuring the works of Edvard Grieg.

She has practiced yoga for over a decade and is the co-founder of Intermission, a program that combines music, movement, and mindfulness, aiming to make music-making a healthier, more holistic practice for students and professionals alike through yoga and meditation.

Elena first appeared on From the Top at age 15. We chatted with her about her career, memories of From the Top, and returning as a guest host.

What do you remember about your experience performing on From the Top when you were a young musician?

I was lucky enough to perform on From the Top twice — once at age 15 and again two years later — and I remember both experiences being incredibly joyful, infused with a feeling of real camaraderie amongst the players and throughout the organization as a whole. I hit it off immediately with some of the other performers, and I still remember details about their skits in addition to my own!

Elena Urioste, in 2001, at her first appearance on From the Top.

On my first show, we did a bit about “blessing a banana”, based on my first violin teacher who always insisted I eat a banana before any performance and occasionally sent me off with one that she’d imbued with some kind and hopeful words. The audience collectively “OM”ed over a banana that appeared onstage before I performed Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy — perhaps this was foreshadowing the importance of yoga and meditation in my life! And for my second show, vulnerability-turned-lightheartedness was the theme — also apropos of my current outlook on music — I was terrified about tanking the ending of Tchaikovsky Concerto onstage with the Pittsburgh Symphony, so From the Top and the orchestra let me do a practice run of the final measures of the piece on-air.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself?

BREATHE. What I wouldn’t give to have discovered some sort of mindful movement practice when I was in the formative years of my training! I’ve always suffered from majorly high-octane pre-performance nerves, but no one ever bothered to tell me that getting oxygen flowing through my lungs was basically a cure-all: it slows the heart-rate, calms the nervous system, and settles the dreaded bow-shakes from which I used to suffer so terribly. Utilizing a conscious breathing practice in my pre-performance routine and even while onstage has been such a game-changer.

What do you think is special about From the Top?

It’s one thing to witness talented young musicians in a more traditional performance setting, but to see the kids embrace the opportunity to express themselves in a range of ways — chatting, acting, and making music, which are really all different forms of story-telling — gives you a broader picture of each individual. In my opinion, this setting is special and somewhat rare, especially for younger performers: the fourth wall is broken down to reveal a more intimate, vulnerable glimpse into these artists’ lives, and it’s a privilege to witness.

From the Top sees hundreds of talented young musicians each year but the care and attention that they bestow on each participant is so encouraging, even life-changing.

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What was it like to work with the students on From the Top earlier this year?

Working with the extraordinary young musicians on From the Top in January was absolutely one of the highlights of my year — of the last several years, actually! Not only was the level of musical ability staggering, but what struck me most was how immediately all of the participants seemed drawn to take care of each other. The environment that Peter and the entire From the Top team is fostering on each of its show weeks is one of encouragement, open-mindedness, and kindness, and the kids on my episode took those qualities and ran with them. Each one of the young musicians (and Peter!) was a true delight to work with and get to know, and I walked away feeling both honored to have been a part of such an incredible organization — one that nurtures its young participants as complete human beings, which I hope others around the country are taking note of! — and optimistic about the future of classical music in the States. And humanity, for that matter, if these kiddos are any indication.

When did you know that you wanted music to be your career?

I had loved music since first witnessing an appearance of Itzhak Perlman’s on Sesame Street at the age of 2 and became obsessed with the idea of being a concert violinist from the age of 5 or 6, but there wasn’t one magic moment where I decided to focus on music as my life’s path. Rather, my love for music gradually began to eclipse my enjoyment for academia over the course of my teenage years, and it became clear that, at least for awhile, I would have to distribute my time and attention more on music in order to create the life I imagined for myself.

When did you discover your love for yoga and why did it speak to you?

I began practicing Bikram yoga in the summer of 2009, and from my very first class, I was hooked. Over the course of my decade-long yoga practice, I have not only noticed changes in the way my body feels, looks, and operates, but I have been able to adjust some unfortunate physical habits that I had built up over the years in my violin playing. The Bikram sequence builds mental determination like you wouldn’t believe, as well as the ability to overcome most any seemingly impossible situation.

Today, my yoga and meditation practices are largely responsible for the sense of calm I am now able to access in even the most harrowing of performance circumstances. This is not to say that I am immune to pre-concert jitters, but I now know how to work with my nerves as opposed to battling against them!

All musicians should learn to treat their bodies with the awareness and respect they deserve, and to find joy in their physical connections to their instruments — and ultimately, to the music itself.

Tell us about your Intermission app? What was the inspiration? What are your goals?

Inspired by the incredible community that has grown out of our Intermission Sessions for music students and Retreats for professional musicians, the Intermission App offers tools to strengthen the body, calm the mind, and link music to healthy movement and mindfulness whether you’re on the road, preparing for a big practice day, or about to walk onstage. Melissa White — my Intermission partner, dear friend, and fellow From the Top alum! — and I have filmed and assembled dozens of detailed, accessible videos that provide pre-rehearsal moves, stretches that target specific body parts, warm-ups on different instruments, and breathing exercises to calm even the jitteriest performer.

We wanted to create a digital resource that gave an overview of the types of ideas we explore in our in-person workshops, particularly because a holistic approach to music-making is still tough to access in most conservatory training. Absolutely no yoga experience is necessary to use the app — we encourage musicians and yogis of all ages and experiences to come as they are and enjoy the journey of piecing together videos to create their own routine — hopefully inspiring them to seek out yoga classes in their community or a regular home movement and meditation practice!

What is in store for you in 2020? What are you most looking forward to?

2020 is a delightful hodgepodge of activities! Some highlights: my debut with the San Diego Symphony playing all eight Vivaldi/Piazzolla Seasons; the release of my second album with my husband and piano partner, Tom Poster, a disc of Grieg’s Violin Sonatas; multiple chamber music appearances at London’s Wigmore Hall; and various education activities through both Intermission and through my wonderful friend Nicola Benedetti’s new initiative, The Benedetti Sessions.

Listen to Elena co-host From the Top from January 2020!

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