Noise and the neighbours

I once had a whim and I had to obey it 
To buy a French Horn in a second-hand shop; 
I polished it up and I started to play it 
In spite of the neighbours who begged me to stop.

–Flanders and Swann, “Ill Wind”

Facebook has been buzzing recently with the story of Laia Martin, a Spanish pianist whose neighbour is seeking to have her put in prison for practising the piano too much. The punishment sought by the prosecutors–a 20-month sentence–seems astonishing. Surely the Spanish justice system has better things to do, such as prosecute actual criminals?

The tone of the article gave me some unpleasant flashbacks to my own student days. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Canterbury, our small and poorly soundproofed building only had four practice rooms, for which there was a lot of competition. The students had to deal with a curious situation in which the instrumental teachers exhorted us to practise for six or eight hours a day, but the musicology professors regularly charged upstairs to the practice-room corridor to shout at us for making too much noise. Practising at home was all very well during the warmer months of the year, but Christchurch student flats were unbearably cold in the winter and totally unsuitable for practice. We solved the problem by practising after the musicologists had gone home; I have fond memories of practising the Lalo cello concerto at two o’clock in the morning, before tottering home to catch a few hours of sleep before my nine o’clock Baroque history lecture.

Things got much worse when I went to study in London. During my three years there, I moved house 16 times. One of these times was to live nearer a boyfriend; 15 were because housemates and neighbours kept not liking the cello. I never practised at unsociable hours, or for more than two hours in a single session, or even particularly loudly, but they complained anyway. Part of it, of course, is that people in London live closer together and in smaller spaces than they do in my native New Zealand, or in my adopted American West. But that doesn’t quite account for the behaviour of some of my London neighbours, many of whom preferred to call the police than to knock on the door of my flat to ask if I’d give my Haydn concertos a rest. What were they afraid of? Being stabbed with a cello endpin? I suppose it was a lucky thing that in those days, I had a policy of not owning more things than I could carry all at the same time, so that if things got a bit hot and I had to move in a hurry, I could do it on the London Underground with a cello on my back, a backpack on my front, a suitcase in one hand and a satchel full of music in the other.

The difficulty I experienced in finding “safe” spaces to practise in wasn’t, and isn’t, unusual. One of my heroes, Susan Tomes, makes the point that once musicians finish their studies, they aren’t allowed to use music school practice rooms any more. This lack of access to practice space is particularly bad in crowded, expensive cities–New York being the obvious example. Various New York-based friends of mine have got around this by taking itinerant teaching jobs in grade schools where they can sometimes practise before and after classes. Others take church gigs for the same reason. I suppose I’ve been very privileged that since my time at Canterbury and in London, I haven’t had any insurmountable problems finding a place to practise. I’ve been affiliated with music schools that allowed me to practise in their buildings, and lived with housemates who either didn’t mind my constant practising or who were musicians themselves. More recently, I’ve owned a detached house. (When you’re married to a trumpeter, having a detached house is a very wonderful thing. Before I met my husband, I had often reflected how much greater my own practice problems might have been if I’d chosen a significantly louder instrument than the cello, and it turned out I was right.)

These days it’s my students who have the practice space problem, not me. I usually can’t solve their problems, but I can at least be the kind of neighbour I wish I’d had in my student days, or the kind of neighbour I wish Ms. Martin had. Coincidentally, we live very near a number of professional and amateur musicians. The pianist next door wants to play Chopin nocturnes for a few hours late at night? No problem. Someone wants to host a rowdy singalong of hits from Broadway musicals? Go right ahead. As long as they can handle long stretches of the Hindemith trumpet sonata or the Bach cello suites, I’ll happily coexist with other people’s music-making. If I believed in karma, I’d say I was paying some forward.



Someone sent me this blog post by the conductor Kenneth Woods about the inhumanity of the orchestra audition system. Written in response to Jennie Dorris’ now-viral article “The Audition,” it sets out a thoughtful and compassionate alternative to the current, rather brutal way of doing things.

Reading Woods’ opinions reminded me of why I’ve never been much interested in the audition circuit. I never really wanted to have an orchestral job, mostly because my passions are for smaller-scale musical forms: string quartets, the cello-piano repertoire, Bach’s solo suites, and, these days, piano trios. The other reason is that I’ve seen what friends on the circuit go through. Countless times, they willingly spend money and time they don’t have going to audition after audition, dropping upwards of $1,000 on travel expenses (more, if you play an instrument that needs its own seat on the plane) for the chance to win one of those elusive, coveted jobs in a full-time professional orchestra. I’ve seen first-hand the immense preparation that goes into the audition, and the crushing disappointment of losing. The number of people I know with doctorates and no jobs far exceeds the number I know who do have jobs.

And yet, I wonder if issues like the number of excerpts in an audition are really the main problem. (Well, of course excerpt requirements are a problem. I’ve done a couple of auditions myself, and always resented having to prepare as many as 20-30 excerpts–particularly things like that idiotic Bartered Bride overture by Bedřich Smetana, a piece that isn’t actually played that often.) The biggest problem, as I see it, is that there are far, far more qualified applicants for the existing number of music jobs, and as a cello professor, I’m part of that problem.

It’s recruitment season right now, and I’ve spent the past week going into high schools around the Northwest to talk to the students about careers in music. I typically play a bit of Bach for the students, answer their questions (first up is always “Where are you from?”), then join them in the cello section for the remainder of their rehearsal time. I always have a blast doing this, and really enjoy the company of bright, geeked-out kids. But looking at their shining eyes always gives me a pang of conscience too. Is it, I wonder, immoral to encourage intelligent, capable young people to spend a grotesque amount of money training for a profession where there are few openings, and thousands of intensely competitive applicants? Are music schools nothing better than degree factories, peddling dreams of success, but delivering only disappointed hopes?

And yet, my own employment depends in part on my ability to recruit new music students, so I keep playing my role in the system. I tell myself–we all tell ourselves, I think–that my profession enables willing, music-loving young people to get better at music. Even if they don’t make it in the profession, we will have taught them discipline and a work ethic that will benefit them in any career. Plenty of people don’t end up in careers directly related to their college major–just ask someone with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. These music graduates will love music all their lives, will be patrons of the arts, will attend the concerts of the lucky few who did make it, will make sure their children study music–in short, they will help keep the system going. Possibly with a six-figure debt that will take a lifetime to pay off.

Should we make “The Audition” required reading for anyone contemplating studying music at university? Part of me thinks it’s the only moral course of action. Part of me is too afraid that they’d be scared away. If any such cautionary tale existed when I was a teenager in the late 1990s, I didn’t know about it. I’m not sure if I’d have chosen a different career path, or if I’d have arrogantly assumed that I would be one of the lucky few who made it. When I’m in recruitment mode, I point out the ways in which our program prepares students to “hit the ground running” once they’re out in the profession. I train string teachers in my Preparatory Division; if the dreams of stardom don’t end up happening, at least they can earn their bread and butter with a private teaching studio, or in a school orchestra classroom, if their degree is in Music Education. Otherwise known as… the feeding device for collegiate music programs. The circularity seems ironic.