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.