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At home, silence is golden for violinist – and her cat

By Greg Rollins

Whenever I tell people my wife Sarah Shellman is a violinist with The Florida Orchestra, they say the same thing: “Your house must be very musical.” As a music lover, I wish I could say it is. Instead, my answer is usually, “Not at all, but we do have a lot of cats.” People are understandably confused. Not so much about the cats — although some do find them more interesting — but about why the house of a musician isn’t very musical.

Most don’t realize that classical musicians are slightly different from other musicians. Unlike jazz, pop, or R&B artists, many classical musicians love to play music, but they don’t care to listen to it — not if they don’t have to. When you play for a living, you don’t want to listen for fun, much like my massage therapist friend who refuses to give her husband massages. With the occasional exception of artists like the Beastie Boys, Violent Femmes, Prince, and Greg Brown (who would’a thunk it?), Sarah usually prefers silence.

That’s not to say our house is completely soaked in silence. Sarah practices a lot, but much of what our six cats and I hear are long tones, scales, arpeggios and other warmup techniques. When it comes to actual music, the cats and I never hear anything in its entirety, just snippets from the second violin part played over and over and over again. Sometimes I recognize a melody or theme, but much of it doesn’t make sense without the rest of the orchestra. It’s like seeing only one color in the Mona Lisa, or watching Serena Williams work out at the gym rather than play tennis on a court.

It might sound like Sarah doesn’t appreciate music, but that’s not true. Quite the opposite. She loves it and believes classical music shouldn’t be treated like background noise. It should command as much attention from the listener as the musicians on stage put into performing it.

If it sounds like I don’t appreciate her practicing, that’s not true either. One of our cats, Sammy, certainly doesn’t, but I do. Hearing Sarah work through her parts makes me want to listen to the piece in its entirety. Take her upcoming concerto in April, for example: Listening to her practice makes me look forward to hearing it with a full orchestra.

It might be disappointing to learn that some of the musicians we enjoy watching prefer silence over sound, but I can’t blame them. Not when they play so much! Others might think it hard to live in a house that doesn’t have music playing all the time, but it’s not. When I grow tired of silence or long tones or the themes of great compositions repeated over and over, I escape into my noise-cancelling headphones and listen to whatever I want (I’m currently on an electronica kick).

It’s better than yowling and hiding like Sammy.

Coming up in April: 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

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