Overheard

During some days in late summer, I practiced Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto. I’m sure the windows were open. My Juilliard piano teacher, Jacob Lateiner lived on 84th Street, just around the block. I mentioned I was learning Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto. “I know,” he said.

Pianists are prone to be overheard. The piano can be a loud instrument. Living in close proximity to others, in a New York City apartment, or a suburban house — practicing is not entirely private.

In music schools, players get used to hearing, or even being drowned out by other people’s sound waves, transmitted through practice-room walls and windows. Being overheard usually doesn’t cause inhibition in the practice room; you’re not playing a solo.

My new neighbor practices music by J. S. Bach, and reductions of Mozart’s operas. If I knew who it was as I passed him in the lobby — early 20s, guy, Gould afficianado — I’d like to offer some stern helpful advice. Don’t always stop when you play a wrong note! Please!

In his late life, Rudolf Firkusny was strongly discouraged from practicing by his new neighbor, an attorney. One summer, my épater-la-bourgeoisie neighbor advised me, “More Glass, less Gershwin.”

John Cage’s story might challenge any sense that a neutral context of silence is desirable or possible:

One day when the windows were open, Christian Wolff played one of his pieces at the piano. Sounds of traffic, boat horns, were heard not only during the silences in the music, but, being louder, were more easily heard than the piano sounds themselves. Afterward, someone asked Christian Wolff to play the piece again with the windows closed. Christian Wolff said he’d be glad to, but that it wasn’t really necessary, since the sounds of the environment were in no sense an interruption of those of the music.

One summer — windows open again — my neighbor screamed her opinions across the air shaft. I was practicing a lot of music by Schoenberg. She yelled, “Stop that terrible noise — people are trying to live!”

I can’t really blame her. I wouldn’t want to hear hours of piano practicing. Although as she rang my doorbell for several minutes at a time it was increasingly difficult to remain sympathetic.

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