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My wife devoted a year to one violin concerto. Here’s why.

By Greg Rollins

I’m amazed that when a soloist performs a concerto, it looks so effortless. I know it takes a lot of practice, but until recently, I had no idea how much or what other preparations were needed. When my wife, Sarah Shellman, performs a violin concerto with The Florida Orchestra this weekend (April 12-14), she will have devoted nearly a year of her life preparing for the concert.

It started with the music. First, she had to choose the piece. She loved the idea of playing something contemporary by a female composer – both often overlooked or ignored by orchestras. She spent hours looking up composers and listening to pieces. It was fun listening along while she searched. She went through dozens of composers and pieces I wasn’t familiar with, but I had the luxury of listening with a curious ear – not an analytical one. Sarah listened with the intent to interpret the music her own way. When she heard The Seamstress, the music drew her in. She knew she wanted to play it.

Once she chose The Seamstress, Sarah started learning it. This was last summer. I always assumed soloists only needed a couple of months to prepare. According to Sarah, some do, but she wanted to get to know the piece as well as she could – so well that if something happened, like she came down with the flu (please, nobody say that out loud), she could still play it without any problems, much like autopilot. Throughout the fall, she ran through the score over and over again. This was on top of learning The Florida Orchestra’s weekly repertoire. At that point, I thought she was ready to perform the piece, but she had barely scratched the surface.

Throughout the winter, she continued to practice, learning the 23-minute piece as a whole and in sections simultaneously. Come New Year’s, she put in even more time practicing. In March, we went to New York City. I had a great time visiting bookshops, delis, and cheese and wine stores. Sarah, on the other hand, rehearsed with a pianist, played for her college violin teacher several times, and discussed The Seamstress with the composer, Anna Clyne. Toward the end of our stay, Sarah ripped open the tip of her index finger: Not a big deal for most people, but a heart-stopping one for a string player. Especially one weeks away from performing a concerto. She was forced to take a couple of days off. Once she got home and her finger healed, she practiced more than ever, implementing the suggestions she gathered in New York.

When you spend this much time making sure every note is perfect, you want to look perfect as well, right down to the dress. Sarah needed a dress that not only looked good but that she could play in with a full range of movement. Sarah spent hours searching the Internet and various stores around Tampa. I have no idea how many articles of clothing she tried on, but she put in far more time looking for something for her concerto than she did for our wedding. It wasn’t an easy decision, but in the end, she decided to wear a different dress for each of the three concerts. Thankfully, choosing the right shoes was considerably easier. I told her that if she didn’t wear Fluevogs – “unique soles for unique souls” and our favorite shoes – our marriage was over and I was moving back to Canada.

In the days counting down to her performance, Sarah has performed her piece multiple times in front of friends who are willing to give her honest feedback. She also has looked into details like which concert will be recorded for the archives, who can have access to those recordings without breaking copyright laws, and how the orchestra can best listen to the piece to prepare. The list of related tasks seems endless. When she isn’t practicing or running off to the tailor to have a dress refitted, she is listening to a recording of The Seamstress.

When it comes to this concerto, it’s been a long year. For me, sitting on the sidelines watching the preparation has been fun, but now I am ready to hear Sarah play The Seamstress live with a full orchestra. As far as I’m concerned, Sarah is more than ready too.

Brahms’ Symphony No. 1

TFO violinist Sarah Shellman will be featured in Anna Clyne’s The Seamstress, in a concert that highlights the influence of women. Also on the program are Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 and Schumann’s Manfred Overture, with guest conductor Gemma New.

Free tickets for kids and teens in advance to this and all Tampa Bay Times Masterworks concerts.

Fri, April 12, 8 pm, Straz Center
Sat, April 13, 8 pm, Mahaffey Theater
Sun, April 14, 2 pm, Mahaffey Theater – Matinee

*Pictured at top: Sarah Shellman (right) with composer Anna Clyne


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