Bachtober: Violinist Elena Urioste on Annotating Music

By Elena Urioste

I searched high and low for a page of Bach decorated with years of my handwriting, but the truth is that I’ve never been a big annotator. I found more tears and coffee stains in my music than my own hieroglyphics! This stems perhaps from a misplaced aesthetic preference (I like the look of clean, unadulterated paper), or laziness (I can’t be bothered to stop what I’m doing to scribble); but mostly, I believe that writing in music, at least for me, is limiting.


Violinist Elena Urisote (photo by Sophie Zhai)
Violinist Elena Urisote (photo by Sophie Zhai)

It’s difficult to dissociate the actions of our fingers from what our eyes are observing: after years of coaxing our brains, ears, and arms in the direction of what’s on the printed page, we’re pretty much trained to do what we see, especially if we’re returning to a piece that’s already ingrained in our mental and physical selves. Personally, I prefer to approach the music each time as though it is an entirely new experience, with no preconceived notions of what it once did or should at some point sound like. Especially in the music of Bach, often inherently improvisatory in nature, I want to treat each turn of phrase, every nuance, like an exploration. Thus, I choose not to inhibit my mind and body with a bowing that might be nothing more than a passing whim, or a verbal instruction with a fleeting shelf-life. The odd clever fingering aside, I want to feel like I’m discovering the music for the first time every time, free of external influences—so that hopefully my audiences can feel that way, too.

This particular passage is no more or less marked up than any other, despite this edition being my primary frame of reference since I began studying. I chose it not for the visual spectacle (obviously!), but rather because the switch from minor to major is my favorite phrase in Bach, in the entire violin catalog, and perhaps even in all of music.