This guest post is from saxophone and multi-reed player, composer, recording artist, and educator Sam Sadigursky of SamSadigursky.com
If I could only go back, I think I would play the guitar. Not just to rip those pentatonic scales up and down and play around with effects while my long hair blows in the wind, but mainly because you can practice any time of day without ever thinking about who you might be bothering, or finding a note like this on your door:
The Grass is Indeed Greener
I grew up in the suburbs, where I could practice pretty much any time of day as long as I wanted, as long as my parents and siblings were willing to tolerate it. Looking back, it was a musician’s paradise. Living in a number of apartments around New York City, where I’ve been since 2002, it’s a very different story, one that has constantly involved an evolving set of solutions, creativity, and flexibility. Here goes….
My first two apartments in Brooklyn were just about as good as it gets for a musician. The first was an old pre-war building with thick walls, and I had specifically sought out a corner unit. This one was even on the ground floor, so really I only had to worry about the people living above me.
Kill ‘Em with Kindness
There are two schools when it comes to dealing with neighbors. The first is that you ignore their potential desire to live free of saxophone overtones and Klose etudes, simply wait for there to be a problem, and then see where the cards fall. I’ve always taken a more proactive approach, where I actually introduce myself to my neighbors, tell them about what I do, explain that this is actually my living, and ask them to please come to me to talk if they have any complaints rather than go to the landlord or call the police.
I tend to be rather sensitive about being a bother to people, so I’ve found that opening a dialogue like this works better for me. In this first apartment, I was quite fortunate. The people living above me consistently went out of their way to tell me how much they enjoyed listing to my music, and we became friends. I can’t say this was the case in my next apartment, but my neighbors there were at least tolerant and never took any actions to stop me from playing. That said, in both apartments, I’ve always been quite considerate about staying within limits. If I knew the neighbors were around, I stayed away from the particularly ugly and loud stuff, and often times would take those opportunities to practice clarinet or flute, or even write at the piano. I also rarely played past 6 or 7pm, and never heavily on weekends, out of respect and gratitude to them.
Last year, when I moved into a modern high-rise in Manhattan, subsidized by the hospital where my fiance works as a resident, I knew the practice equation was going to change drastically. Everybody in the building works for the hospital, and many of them work long and odd hours, including my fiance, who often works 24-hour call shifts and overnight. Our lease specifically forbids practice of musical instruments, in fact, so I’ve had to be extra careful to not cause any problems, especially considering that it would be difficult for us to afford to live anywhere else in this neighborhood.
Thinking Inside the Box…
In preparation for our move, I was able to get a whisper room on Craiglist for about $1,000. For those of you who don’t know about this contraption, it’s a 4×4 foot booth that you can practice inside of which more or less eliminates the noise for the neighbors while cutting it down by 70% to the others inside your apartment. It weighs 1000 pounds (no joke), but fortunately comes apart and can be moved by a few linebacker friends. It really does the job….
However, it’s difficult to spend too big a part of one’s day in a contained box that has one window, especially when you’re living on the 17th floor in Manhattan and can look out to a pretty spectacular view. The other downside is that the sound in the booth is incredibly dry, since you’re surrounded by vibration-deadening foam in there. A healthy amount of reverb in any space you practice in is good, and there is pretty much none in the whisper room, which makes it feel quite sterile.
…And Outside the Box Too
All that said, I was hoping to find some other practice solutions once we moved, and a year into our move, I’ve got a few nice things going. I managed to get an ID card to a local university which has practice rooms. I sometimes teach an improvisation class there, which helped me get this access. This has helped a lot, not only because I can make noise there, but it’s also nice to get away from the distractions of home once in a while.
Now that the weather is nice, I will often take my tenor (certainly the loudest of my arsenal) out to the East River where there is a pedestrian path flanked by the FDR highway, which assures me that nobody is hearing a single note I play. Plus, I get the added romance of looking out onto the Williamsburg Bridge where Sonny Rollins once honed his craft.
Put a Sock in It!
I’ve also met my neighbors here, and after some initial tension and a very passive aggressive note left on my doorstep, we’ve come to some sort of agreement about my practicing. I’m still very cautious with the hours I play, and make sure to go inside the whisper room anytime I really want to let loose. But I’ve gotten reasonably comfortable playing outside the whisper room, and actually grown to like stuffing a sock into the bell of my horn when I play, which muffles the sound considerably. The downside to this trick is that it changes the response and resistance of the horn slightly, so I wouldn’t advise this to beginning players…I can always practice flute or clarinet too, which I’m sure most neighbors find more agreeable, except for the neighbors who wrote that note above, which ironically was in response to bass clarinet practice by a student of a friend of mine!
So far so good, but I have to remember that at any point I can get new neighbors who might not be as tolerant as my current ones, and everything could change. As if making a living from music isn’t difficult enough, unfortunately this is something that most everybody I know that lives in this city has to deal with.
Someday, I dream of having a separate work space that I rent, where I can play, write, and teach anytime, but until I have $1000 per month at my personal disposal, I have to do my best with my current circumstances.
One thing that all musicians living in NYC should keep in mind is that the law tends to favor the rights of musicians to make a “reasonable” amount of noise during the day. So if one is willing to fight with the neighbors over the noise situation, it’s quite likely that you will win if it goes to court. Most musicians I know here have at least a tale or two to tell about this issue, and I do know one who did go to court and win. I even had some friends who had the distinct fortune of living above an elderly couple that were nearly deaf, which allowed us to play Coltrane and Elvin-style drum/saxophone duos there at any time of day or night! If only we could all be so lucky…
Happy practicing, and please stay tuned for some features from me that will actually consist of some practice ideas and tips!
Study with Sam
Sam Sadigursky is currently offering online lessons through Skype and private lessons in NYC. He has given improvisation clinics across the U.S., is a regular guest professor at Hunter College, and currently performs internationally with Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Folklore Urbano, and others. To find out more, visit SamSadigursky.com.