Can You Mute That Tuba? Lockdown Forces Musicians to Practice Quietly
Performers stuck inside are finding ways to sing and play instruments without annoying neighbors working from home; ‘my first gig back is going to be rough’
May 5, 2020 11:34 am ET
Angela Scorese is preparing her voice for a breakout role as Queen of the Night in a coming performance of the Magic Flute, Mozart’s signature opera. The 26-year-old soprano, an understudy for the part, runs through a daily warm-up routine in her Jersey City, N.J., apartment. When she’s ready to sing, she steps into a bedroom closet and shuts the door.
“I have a lot of clothes in there that help muffle the sound,” says Ms. Scorese, whose part includes singing a piercing High F, one of the highest notes in classical opera.
She says the makeshift closet studio is a workaround aimed at keeping the peace with other residents in her building. The performance is set for July.
Across the country, lockdown orders to stem the spread of the coronavirus have performers from opera singers to heavy-metal drummers stuck indoors—practicing within earshot of their working-from-home neighbors. Many singers and instrumentalists who no longer have access to outside studio space are finding creative ways to make do.
Before the crisis, conscientious musicians living in crowded buildings tended to practice during office hours, when most residents were at work. But since the pandemic struck, scales and arpeggios are competing side-by-side with conference calls, Zoom meetings or Netflix binge-watching next door.
Though Ms. Scorese hasn’t heard any complaints, she says a singer friend in a nearby West New York, N.J., apartment found a note slipped under her door. Rebecca Benitez, a 31-year-old soprano practicing for the role of the Queen’s lady in the same production, says the unsigned letter told her to pipe down “in passive aggressive terms.”
“I’m sure like us you’ve had to adjust to staying at home and working,” the letter writer said, according to a copy provided by Ms. Benitez. “Indeed while we’re uncertain what it is you do, we imagine it has something to do with singing which we know because, unfortunately, the walls in this building are not quite as thick as we would like.”
Ms. Benitez says she has tried wearing a customized mask to damp the sound of her voice, “but it’s just not the same.”
Many musicians say it’s especially irksome that nearly all complaints against them are anonymous.
Samuel Green, a singer and trombone player in St. Paul, Minn., says he put a sign on the door of his downtown apartment, promising not to tread on the building’s quiet policy, which allows him to play between 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., after Minnesota went into lockdown.
That didn’t stop one resident from yelling through a wall last month, as Mr. Green was warming up. “Right when I reached the top of my vocal range I heard ‘stop singing!’ and just froze in place,” he says.
Brian Perry, a 40-year-old bass player in the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, says he and his family perform 20-minute concerts in front of their Fort Worth, Texas, single-family home. His wife plays violin and his daughters, 11 and 7, play violin and cello. They recently performed a rendition of “Yellow Rose of Texas.” “People keep their distance, but they can hear us,” Mr. Perry said. So far no one has complained.
The family has an upstairs music studio, though sheltering in place has made scheduling individual practice sessions tricky, especially around home schooling. “Sharing has become the name of the game,” he said.
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John Bianchi, a vice president at a New York communications firm, who is taking clarinet lessons online during the lockdown, says he has been on edge since a neighbor complained about a piano player in their 13-story Manhattan apartment building.
To avoid a confrontation, Mr. Bianchi now spends up to two hours a day playing clarinet in his 1998 Saturn station wagon, parked on Fifth Avenue near Washington Square Park. New York state imposed a stay-at-home order on March 20.
Mr. Bianchi says he sits behind the steering wheel, because “sitting alone on the passenger side is just too weird.” Masked pedestrians who stop beside the car snapping their fingers or singing along to scales are “more than a little distracting,” he says.
In Brooklyn, jazz trumpeter Jason Prover says he has dialed back practicing in his apartment to roughly two hours a day, from five or six hours. He also uses a mute, a cone-shaped device that fits into the bell of brass instruments to muffle the sound, and plays into a pillow. But the accommodation isn’t ideal, he says. “I can’t warm up with a mute and you can’t really practice,” he says, adding that the mute changes the airflow through his trumpet.
“My first gig back is going to be rough,” Mr. Prover says.
New York City has become a hotbed of noise complaints.
Over the first week of the lockdown alone, New Yorkers made more than 11,000 complaints to the city about noisy neighbors, up 23% from the same period last year, according to a study of 311 calls by apartment-rental site Renthop.com. The complaints included musical instruments and loud music, as well as home repairs and unidentified banging noises.
Like other cities, New York has a municipal noise code that sets out maximum decibel levels and hours for noise-generating activity. Most instruments fall well below allowable daytime levels for construction sites, nightclubs and other loud disturbances. Some condos or co-op boards may set stricter policies, according to the Associated Musicians of Greater New York, Local 802 AFM, the city’s musicians’ union.
“Acceptable decibel levels must take into account ambient noise, which in NYC is often very loud,” a union spokesperson said.
Christopher Tefft says he was shocked when a neighbor called the police on an electric bass player in a downstairs unit of their New York building. Mr. Tefft, a musical-theater performer himself, says the bass player is now using headphones.
“I think it was rude and completely inappropriate,” he says about the anonymous neighbor who called the cops. “There’s an understanding in New York that we do what we want and leave each other alone.”
Mr. Tefft says he has vowed to keep singing any time he feels like it.
Other musicians are taking a softer approach to pre-empt complaints.
David Ostwald, a 64-year-old tuba player, has started playing “America the Beautiful” out of the fifth-floor window of his uptown Manhattan apartment. He performs every night at 7 p.m., timed to coincide with the city’s nightly salute to medical workers, he says.
Mr. Ostwald, who led a weekly Louis Armstrong tribute band at Birdland, the city’s legendary jazz club, before the lockdown, says he started doing the impromptu shows about a week after he recovered from coronavirus.
He says neighbors gather in front of the building to hear him play, and he’s added “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “Amazing Grace” and other inspirational songs.
“I’ve received a lot of positive feedback,” Mr. Ostwald says. As far as he knows, there have been no complaints.
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Balcony Workouts and Singalongs: Socializing in the Time of Coronavirus
In cities around the world, balcony singing, workouts and other improvised events can fill the silence of empty streets. Here's how developing creative ways to connect with others is helping some people cope with coronavirus quarantines. Photo: Alberico/Fotogramma/Ropi/Zuma Press
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