Playing second fiddle to COVID-19: TFO violinist keeps the music and herself going 1

Playing second fiddle to COVID-19: TFO violinist keeps the music and herself going

By Sarah Shellman

Greetings, TFO family and friends! All of us in the orchestra world are missing the live music and connection during this challenging period of pandemic and isolation — Florida Orchestra musicians as much as you. As the leader of our second violin section, I thought you might like some insight into how our section is coping and trying to keep the music going.

First, some back story. As a group, the second violins are used to staying in the background and keeping the orchestra motor running. That buzzing energy coursing through a Beethoven symphony finale? That’s us, along with the violas, providing the kinetic energy and harmonic support of the ensemble. If the orchestra were a fancy cake, we’d be the layers to the melody instruments’ frosting. No matter how luscious the buttercream, no one wants a dry, mediocre cake. But I digress.

In other words, we’re used to playing second fiddle. Just not to a microscopic virus. Now we all have a lot of unexpected, unstructured time on our hands, and we’re trying to use it productively. First, we got some rest, but not for long. As our newest second violinist, William Ronning (a.k.a. The New Kid) put it: “I am practicing lots of basic technical exercises including scales and etudes because, as you know, it’s rare to have so much time to spend on yourself when preparing for so many other things like TFO concerts.”

I’ve also pulled out a stack of my most dreaded etude books (Dounis, anyone?) in hopes that maybe they’ll have aged well since my student days (not likely!). One musical “treat” I’m indulging in is dusting off a Paganini Caprice or two. When I first studied them, it was under the discerning ear and firm discipline of college professors. Now I can work on the technical fireworks required for the sheer thrill of it. No audience, no consequence if it sounds terrible. I just need to hold myself accountable for figuring out the problems and improving. It’s like skydiving without having to actually jump out of the plane. (I imagine. You’ll never catch me skydiving.)

Self-care is also high on the to-do list for many. I’m not talking manicures and spa days. No vacations here. This is an enormously stressful time for the world, and musicians are not exempt. Although we’re continuing to prepare orchestra parts and maintain our skills, the future of live performance is not guaranteed in the coming months. Some orchestras have already laid off all musicians and staff, though I’m proud to say that TFO has found a way to support its people during this dark period. We’re scared. I’m scared. Self-care means finding creative, soothing and nourishing activities to keep oneself from huddling in a corner all day.

Violinist Mary Corbett plans to expand the time she devotes to meditation and at-home yoga practice. Solid work. I’m making a point to keep my outdoor physical activity up, as I know many of us are. One advantage we have to social distancing in Florida is that the beautiful weather allows us to bike, run, walk, garden. I count my blessings daily in this regard.

There’s also some stress-cooking. William is working his way through a Gordon Ramsey recipe series. I find particular joy and solace in baking (the above cake reference makes sense now, no?).  Forget hoarding toilet paper. I’m hoarding butter and chocolate chips.

Bottom line, we’re all trying to stay productive and use our time wisely and creatively. We’re taking care of TFO business (our craft and individual preparation), but also ourselves. If we can’t come back together whole, we can’t take care of you, our audience. As enjoyable as it can be to focus the music inward for a short period, it’s nothing compared to the joy of sharing it with others. I will be grateful to receive your energy and enthusiasm in the concert hall again as well as give you mine. I know my colleagues feel the same way. Until that time comes, stay safe, sane, and well!


13 replies
  1. Kathleen Katsman
    Kathleen Katsman says:

    All of you give me hope and inspiration. Today I was thinking the Brahms Violin Concerto in the Beethoven Violin Concerto also Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. I am 65 years old and stuck in a nursing facility due to back surgery lumbar Fusion. I suppose my 40 years in the symphony probably caused this problem. Isolation has to be the most difficult especially for a concert musician. I am looking forward to chatting another violinist or violist as the loneliness ripping me mad! In isolation due to a positive diagnosis of covid-19. I deeply miss the symphony and performing on My Viola and violin. I feel honored to be in your company and I want to thank you and invite you to please write me if you wish. I have a doctorate in music in performance
    .my e-mail is

  2. Greg & Anne Yadley
    Greg & Anne Yadley says:

    We look forward to hearing you play again live – but, in the meanwhile, keep practicing… and we expect chocolate-chip cookies at the next Board meeting!

  3. Americo Gonzalvo
    Americo Gonzalvo says:

    Thank You very much for sharing your thoughts with us. I am also concerned about the future of the orchestra. I can not envision life in Tampa without our wonderful orchestra. I hope that this curse will soon pass and again we will have the immense pleasure of hearing you all play.


  4. Patricia C Donohue
    Patricia C Donohue says:

    Your view into the life of musicians in isolation is both eye-opening and heart warming. The audience seldom gets a glimpse of the detail and rigor each musician puts in behind the orchestra performance. Keep sharing your leadership and energy!

  5. José Perez
    José Perez says:

    Greetings Sarah!
    I adore listening to TFO your section is in no way second fiddles or in the back ground.
    My eye constantly travels to you and your Team! Thank you for sharing what you’re doing, Mary, and William to keep physically and emotionally ready for next season!

  6. robert wharton
    robert wharton says:

    Thank you Sarah! I am working everyday at the hospitals and hope everyone stays isolated and safe! You can walk, ride bikes and jog; just not with anyone else unless they live with you. Grocery stores and takeout are available (including restaurants like Leverocks!) This will pass, but probably not for MONTHS! So, keep active and be safe!

    • Sarah Shellman
      Sarah Shellman says:

      Thank you, you too! Thanks for all you and Bonnie do on the front lines. You’re the real heroes in all of this.

  7. Jeanne Coleman
    Jeanne Coleman says:

    Sarah, your blog is inspirational and reflects your leadership strength. When are we going to hear the Paganini on the TFO website?

    • Sarah Shellman
      Sarah Shellman says:

      Ha, Jeanne. If this drags on for long enough I make take the plunge. Otherwise, Paganini caprices as played by this orchestral violinist are definitely not for public consumption! Stay safe and well!


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