Annoying the Neighbors: Place and Practice

The reason so many of us lose our bearings about practising early in life is that we practice in living rooms with other family members in earshot–and healthy practice would simply sound too obnoxious, intrusive, repetitious and unmusical for others to hear without annoyance.
~William Westney, pianist, scholar, author of The Perfect Wrong Note

Effective music practice is a lot like riding a jet-ski: Fun and engaging for the person doing it, but annoying for anyone who has to listen.
~ me

it's just a large water bowl!


Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

Ever since I picked up the trumpet, practice has been a never-ending, rarely-successful search for privacy. When I was a kid learning to play, my parents banished me to the garage, and this was a great thing, even though the garage was unheated and we lived in Alaska. It gave me a space to explore without fear of annoying the hell out of anyone within earshot. It gave me freedom to squawk and blat and fart my way toward some tiny semblance of ability. It also let me escape fear of judgment and gave me the freedom to really explore the instrument and my relationship with it. It’s an exploration that’s endless. For me, aural privacy helps me explore more thoroughly.

But now I live in Chicago. No garage. Not even a house. I’m in an apartment and have neighbors on five sides. I also have an office where I do my writing, dissertating, and some practice, too, but there are neighbors there as well, businesses who may or may not appreciate that B harmonic minor scale pattern after the fifteenth time. (probably “not appreciate” is a good guess). I try to do what I can. I stick a mute in the horn most of the time, but that changes how the horn responds, how the air flows, and isn’t good to do all the time, so sometimes I have to uncork the horn and let it rip. I’ve spoken with my neighbors to make sure I’m not annoying anybody and tell them to please let me know if it’s too loud or the wrong time of day. So far nobody’s complained, but even if they don’t, it’s still tough to give myself permission to really explore as though nobody’s listening. According to some of my research so far, too much privacy might not be as helpful as having listeners.

Several of the players I’ve spoken to about practice (professionals all, and stellar musicians), have mentioned that when they practice, they like to imagine someone is in the room with them, listening closely. Ethan Bensdorf, trumpeter with the NY Philharmonic mentioned that he’s imagined orchestral trumpet legend Bud Herseth is in the room listening. If you know somebody is listening, it might make you step up your game a little bit, or a lot. It helps to treat even practice time as a performance, a tactic that can be helpful, but perhaps that’s more beneficial if you’re already playing at a high level, or if you’re working on a song, or even a scale you know well. As a beginner, or as a person trying out some new idea, or lick, or pattern, it might be better to have some privacy so you can screw up to your heart’s content and keep it to yoursel. Plus, imagining someone is in the room with you listening is very different from someone actually listening. I’d feel better with total privacy, but that’s not going to happen in my present situation, so I have to learn to be comfortable with making sound, and making sound mistakes, too (as long as I fix them immediately). It’s a good lesson to try to learn, and I hope that if it gets too annoying, the neighbors will let me know.

Check out the chapter: “To preserve, protect and defend practice time” in the book Making a Musical Life by Tom Heimberg

Have fun and good luck with your practice, whether private or public.

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. mrG says:

    In our defense, may I offer that long tones and harmonic minor modes repeated ad nauseum cannot be compared to lawn-mowers, hedge-trimmers, traffic noise or construction equipment, and ALL of those are given rights to the (sub)urban soundspace from 7am to 11pm in most localities. This is the answer I generally get when I offer an apology for my sons and I starting our practice day at 7am (never a moment before) Even our best skronks and shrieks and repeated attempts at upper harmonic overtones really do not compare at a distance to the ear-crush of buzz saws and wood chippers!

    1. hear, hear! (pun intended). I wholeheartedly agree. Thanks for championing our cause.

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