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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!


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