Practice is part of life for all musicians, and string players are no exception. But what do you do if those around you think your music is just a nuisance? Vicky Hancock finds out


When Noise Annoys

It can be a test of tolerance for some, living next door to a musician – or sharing a hotel with one. The sounds of practising can be as unwanted as a TV or radio on too loudly. Most of the time, musicians and neighbours happily coexist side by side, but when disputes occur, there’s a chance things will turn nasty, as violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky discovered in a hotel in Novorossiysk, Russia. ‘After I’d practised for five hours, a massive, tall guy knocked at my door. He told me in broken Russian that if I didn’t stop immediately he would break my violin in half and then snap each of my fingers.’ And what did Sitkovetsky do? ‘I said, “Thank you for letting me know” and quickly closed the door.’ 

Sitkovetsky’s experience was extreme, but musicians often face conflict. Back in 2007, one such dispute caught the attention of the national press in the UK. Two young freelance violinists living in a block of flats in Manchester, Hazel Ross and Oliver Morris, were sent a letter from their local council telling them that their instruments could be seized if they continued to practise. The cause of the letter: just one unhappy neighbour who’d lodged a complaint.

The pair had been aware of his unhappiness, but the action came as a surprise. ‘We did everything we could to avoid practising at home,’ says Ross. ‘We practised at college and at friends’ houses, and if we did practise at home, we always stopped if he asked.’ Despite support from their other neighbours, in the end the couple moved. They decided they had to be able to practise at home, plus the relationship with their unhappy neighbour had deteriorated further because of the publicity.

Practising at home also caused problems for violinist Ilya Gringolts while living in New York. ‘Our neighbours below were sure that the violin sound wasn’t good for their newborn baby, regardless of the time of day,’ he recalls. ‘They would knock on the door and quickly run back downstairs to show their discontent. It made it difficult to reason with them, though I once tried to use a scientific argument – how listening to Mozart is said to be good for cows.’

Similarly, violinist Nicola Benedetti, who lives in a top-floor flat, has had a couple of protests. ‘My neighbours rarely complain, but if they do it’s because I’m practising too loud, too late. I think people get used to hearing you play, but if you start when they’re already asleep and wake them up it could become a problem.’

Adding more players for an ensemble rehearsal can also attract the attention of those around you, as cellist Guy Johnston discovered while rehearsing with the Aronowitz Ensemble in Amsterdam. ‘We were in a flat rented by two other members of the group. The downstairs neighbours put their music on loudly to get the message across that they were fed up with us.’

One of the best ways to resolve tension with neighbours is to communicate. As double bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku suggests: ‘If they know it’s what you do for a living, they might be more sympathetic.’ Caroline Aldred, head of members’ fund operations at the Incorporated Society of Musicians in London agrees. ‘Talk to your neighbours. Sometimes the two sides fail to negotiate properly and the problem escalates. Then the neighbours may even make a complaint to the local authorities.’

Aldred also advises being ‘reasonable and considerate’ with practice times. ‘Don’t practise at all hours,’ she suggests, ‘and try not to play at night or at breakfast time. Try to keep your hours sensible – I would say not before 9am or after 7pm or 8pm in the evening, with a later start at weekends, or discuss mutually acceptable hours with your neighbours. If you’re considerate and flexible, your neighbours will be too.’

This is the approach that violinist Chloë Hanslip takes. ‘I have neighbours above, below and next door, but the majority are out in the day so I try to finish practising by the end of the workday.’ Some neighbours might not mind a later cut-off – Johnston and Gringolts stop at 9pm, and Sitkovetsky 10pm.

It’s also possible for string players to get an idea of the problems they could potentially face even before they move into a new home – by checking how well it is insulated. This is what Benedetti did: ‘I took my violin and played in every room. My mum and sister then went downstairs, into the corridor and down two floors to see if they could hear me.’ After moving in, some musicians, like Hanslip, slowly increase their practice time. ‘I built up my practice over a few months so they’d get used to it,’ she says.

Some string players try to reduce their sound by using a rubber or metal practice mute. The metal ones mute the sound more, but the rubber ones are lighter. While they allow for quieter practice, they do seem to be controversial. ‘I don’t like using a practice mute,’ says violinist Rafal Zambrzycki-Payne. ‘I don’t think it’s particularly good for the violin and you can’t hear much. They’re OK for a short while, but not a couple of hours.’ Benedetti is also not a fan: ‘Everything changes too much. The sound, the feeling, the articulation and even intonation changes slightly, and I never find it that useful.’

Johnston, on the other hand, likes using a mute: ‘I often use one. They’re not bad to practise with. It dampens the sound, the resonances are very different and you have to listen more carefully because it’s so much quieter. When you take it off there’s more zing in your sound and you feel even more alert and alive because the instrument’s awake again.’

Modern technology can also be useful for facilitating quiet practice. Most electric instruments can be used with headphones, through the use of an amp or effects processor, or another device with a headphones output. Portable external headphone amps are also available, as are specifically silent instruments such as the Yamaha silent range, but all electric instruments can be played without an amp. The sound will be audible, but won’t carry through the wall to a neighbour. John Jordan of Jordan Electric Violins says: ‘Playing without an amp is as effective as playing a muted acoustic instrument.’

For those really worried about making too much noise, or those who need extra space for an ensemble or piano, there is the option of hiring a practice room. Some universities and colleges will even allow former students in to practise for free, while others offer a discount. Alternatively, take a leaf out of Johnston’s book and enlist the help of those around you. He practises in two houses owned by friends, and rarely at home. Johnston advises others to try for a similar set-up. ‘Don’t hesitate. Ring, write and ask friends and family. I can hardly believe that I have such good working spaces.’

One drastic solution for reducing sound is soundproofing a room to practise in. But it’s not easy – or cheap. The simplest soundproofing system normally involves a combination of acoustic sealant, rubber panels and two layers of acoustic plasterboard on each wall, along with heavy, ‘mineral-loaded’ matting for the floors. While effective, it isn’t what the experts recommend.

‘The best solution, regardless of location or room size, is a room within a room,’ says Stephen Young, from soundproofing suppliers Sound Service (Oxford). ‘You contain the music within an enclosure. The structure isn’t directly fixed to the rest of the building and gives you a much more efficient level of soundproofing.’

Young recommends using a ‘stud partition’ system, independent walls with gaps between them and the regular walls, and a separate ceiling and floor. On top of the walls and possibly on the ceiling (depending on where you don’t want the sound to go), you’ll need to install sound absorbing panels. Young estimates a cost of around £36 ($55) per square metre for walls and ceilings, and £48 ($74) per square metre for floors. That’s not including triple-glazed windows and an airtight door between your inner and regular room.

Less permanent soundproofing solutions are also available. Musician and businessman Guillermo Jungbauer has created Studiobricks – easily assembled soundproof cabins, designed to fit inside one of your rooms or part of one. Jungbauer based his concept on the ideals of the Swedish furniture giant Ikea: you order the studio, it’s delivered and then you put it up yourself.

Jungbauer thought of the idea after moving three times. ‘I’ve always had a soundproofed cabin but it was so heavy and hard to move that I decided to design my own light version.’ But like soundproofing a room, it’s still an expensive option. Even a small studio (120cm by 120cm) will cost in the region of £4,700 ($7,200).

Even if musicians have understanding neighbours who love music, they’re not always able to control who stays in the room next to them when on tour or while travelling. Luckily though, most complaints in hotels are less terrifying than Sitkovetsky’s experience. The average person is usually adverse to direct confrontation and makes a call to reception instead.

To pre-empt any potential complaints, it’s best to talk to the hotel receptionist or concierge. In Sitkovetsky’s experience, most hotels will give him a corner room on an end if he asks for one. Violist David Aaron Carpenter does the same, and lets them know when he expects to practise. ‘As long as you notify them that you need to be quite far from other guests, you usually don’t have any problems. I try to practise in the afternoon between 12pm and 5pm, when most people are out.’

It’s also worth being bold and asking for a room specifically to practise in. It may be possible for you to take over one of the hotel’s conference rooms, which can often be used late into the night. ‘On one occasion,’ says Sitkovetsky, ‘I got back from a concert at 11pm and needed to practise because I had a different programme to perform next day. I wanted to practise at full power for at least an hour and half, and I stayed in a conference room until about 1am.’

Of course, some neighbours do enjoy listening to musicians on the other side of the wall. Johnston once lived next to a family with a young baby. ‘The walls were very thin and I was really aware of them. But when I spoke to them, they said they loved hearing the cello.’ Hotel guests can have the same attitude: Gringolts once had a note slipped under his door saying, ‘Thank you so much for the beautiful music,’ and cellist Amit Peled even got a gig through practising scales in a hotel.

He started at 7am and just as he was near finishing there was a knock at his door. He explains: ‘Without opening the door, I said: “OK, I’ll stop. I’m sorry.” But the man immediately said, “No. Please open the door. I am fascinated by the way you practise scales.” ’ He turned out to be the conductor of the Chicago Chamber Orchestra and a former cellist. The following season, the conductor asked Peled to play with his orchestra. ‘I have my early rising habits and scales practice to thank for my Chicago concerto debut,’ he says. 

Soundless exercises could be the ultimate solution to appeasing the neighbours. Here, string players give their favourite methods of practising without an instrument:

Nicola Benedetti ‘I sit and look at the score and practise in my brain. I go through the piece and finger through without noise. Sometimes just reading the score is a very pure way of making decisions, for example on tempo or how you want to play a phrase.’

David Aaron Carpenter ‘I like to do vibrato exercises. One by one, hold each left-hand finger down (and the thumb), and flap the other three. It’s great for your circulation as well as improving the consistency of vibrato. I also study the score and my sheet music when I don’t have access to my violin.’

Chloë Hanslip ‘Studying the score is invaluable. I listen to different recordings to get ideas and to get to know a piece, so I can play it through in my head.’

Guy Johnston ‘I make a conscious effort to go through works in my mind. You can often read music on the page and take it too literally and not always listen in the right way. You need to think and imagine.’

Chi-chi Nwanoku ‘I do phrases as sentences in my head. I go over a passage 25 times or so but with different accents or phrasing, giving notes vowels and consonants.’

Read: 12 ways to encourage children to practise

This article was first published in The Strad’s March 2012 issue - download through The Strad App