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Micropolis: Musicians Make the Noisiest Neighbors

Thursday, March 28, 2013 - 04:00 AM

Practice, practice and so forth: everyone knows the long and tortured path to musical greatness.

But for every thrilling debut at Carnegie Hall, every heart-rending aria sung at the Met, there's a back story. A dark, discordant tale that finds a solitary musician banging away for hours in a 4th-floor Upper East Side walkup as the next-door neighbor goes purple with rage. 

For this latest episode of Micropolis, we explore the not-so-harmonious side of the New York musician's life, wherein one wrong chord can result in a knock on the door, a volley of abuse, and maybe even... MURDER.

Listen to the entire story above, or read what Stephen Hough, Richard Goode and other musicians have to say, below.

 


Theresa Kim

Theresa Kim has toured the world and teaches students in her Upper East Side apartment. A while back her neighbor, the mother of a newborn, heard her practicing an atonal John Corigliano piece on her enormous Steinway-L, and started paying visits to Theresa.

"'It just sounds like you're IN my living room. Your instrument is huge. Can't you put a blanket on it, can't you put a blanket in it? Do something!'" 

Theresa only played during the hours allowed by her building, and often practiced at her parents' home in Jersey, but it didn't matter: the neighbor lady kept returning -- sometimes twice a day. She'd complain whether Theresa was playing a gentle nocturne by Chopin, or something that made you feel like someone was just about to get murdered.

And then, the complaints stopped. The neighbor, it turns out, had moved away. Theresa still feels bad about the whole episode, and is pretty sure her music forced her neighbor out.

 


Richard Goode

 

The piano virtuoso Richard Goode consistently earns the highest praise from the press, but even he's been told to stop practicing, in one case because the 4-year-old in the apartment next door couldn't sleep. In another instance, the neighbors said his playing was 'absolute torture.'

"One of them said 'You're going to drive us out in the rain if you continue this way.' When you experience that, it's terrible. Because you feel everything you do is causing suffering to people. And you get frustrated, and very angry."

"This is your life, this is your work, this is your discipline," he added. "And whenever you practice it, you feel it may be suffering for them. Of course you feel constraint. It enters the mind, and the body."

(Photo credit Steve Riskind)

 


Stephen Hough 

 

"I'm really bothered if I know people can hear me practicing," wrote Stephen Hough in an email, "and I can't work seriously under those circumstances."

"My present solution in New York is a Yamaha Avant Grand digital piano. I turn the volume very low so only I can hear myself and I work away to my heart's content!"

"In London I'm fortunate enough to have a soundproof studio. If people can hear me working it feels a little like trying to write words with someone looking over my shoulder. I feel self-conscious and cannot let go. It's very important when practicing to 'work', not just to have fun playing through pieces … and working means playing the bits which don't sound good, not the ones which do. The other issue is the pianist hearing external noise. That can be a problem in a big city."

(Photo credit Andrew Crowley via CM Artists)

 


Ellie Shearing, wife of the late George Shearing 

 

Ellie Shearing recalls the day a neighbor started banging on the Shearings' door.

"I'd never met him," she said, "and the first words out of his mouth were 'I can't have that noise!'" 

Picture this. George Shearing -- composer of Lullaby of Birdland -- SIR George Shearing, who'd actually been knighted, by the Queen, in whose living room you'd find guys like Dick Hyman, Mel Torme, Bennie Goodman -- Sir George was being called a common noisemaker. Soon, lawyers were called in, and they arrived at the Shearing home to see what kind of a racket he was producing. But instead of duking it out, the Shearings responded in the way of civilized folk. Photos of George meeting with various American presidents were strategically placed, as was Sir George himself. 

"He was in the living room" -- next to his Bosendorfer -- "and he said 'I would like to invite the entire board with their wives to be my guest at one of my shows at the Carlyle, because he was playing at the Carlyle at the time, and he said, "and then they will hear just how loudly I do not play.

"And that did it."


Seymour Bernstein 

 

Seymour Bernstein has taught thousands of musicians. He's even the subject of a documentary being made by Ethan Hawke.

Now in his mid-80s, he's lived and taught in the same place on the Upper West Side for the last 59 years. It's a gorgeous ground-floor apartment that looks like an old-world salon, with all sorts of curios, like the tea kettle once owned by Robert and Clara Schumann. 

He recounted the story of one loud-playing musician whose neighbor tried to kill him.

"Yeah, they left them something to eat at the door. 'You should try this.'  And it was poisoned!"

In his book, "Monsters and Angels, Surviving a Career in Music," he described in great, graphic detail the fights he's had with both neighbors and, the quote, 'miserly, Dickensian landlords' he's had. Like Henry, who he described as charging up the stairs, "like a bull bent on the kill" while he hid inside his apartment. 

At that moment, Seymour was scared Henry would return with the passkey. So he kept one hand on the door, and another on the phone, ready to call the police. 

"The whole time, I heard (the wife) Lillian trying to soothe her husband, in the way that a serpent might hiss comfort to her mate."

This was in the 1970s. Seymour was repeatedly taken to court, but his right to play his piano at home, and teach, was repeatedly upheld. He in turn sued his landlord for a million dollars -- and says he won 10 thousand. But the ordeal haunted him, leaving him sleepless and exhausted.


Ronen Segev 

 

Today, Ronen Segev runs Park Avenue Pianos, and lives on Central Park South, in the same apartment where Leon Fleisher once lived.

But years ago, he was just another Juilliard student, and his constant practice brought on the wrath of his neighbor, who started blasting Jay-Z through the walls.

Being the diligent student he was, Ronen responded musically, by simply playing along.

Consider it a high-low musical mashup: Chopin's Mazurkas vs. Jay-Z. 

This kind of musical combat happens all the time -- people fight back with punk, with the Stones, crank the speakers up to 11 and just leave their apartment. All that noise crashing about, and who knows, maybe one in a thousand times, something interesting comes of it.

 


Les Marshak

 

Marshak is a famous voice over artist, perhaps best known as the person introducing NBC's Today show. Today he lives next to the Guggenheim Museum , but he grew up in the Bronx, next to Yankee stadium, and said his musical accomplishments made him a minor celebrity in his building.

"There was a lot more encouragement and admiration for what we were doing. "keep on playing!" Nowadays, it's 'hmm, I heard the piano." A little indignant. i just think people are less tolerant."

That begs the question: Has the culture actually shifted -- are people less willing to tolerate musicians in their midst -- or does Marshak's point have more to do with the fact that he lives in a building with older, wealthier people?

Irene was singing an aria from "I Capuleti e i Montecchi" -- the Capulets and the Montagues, a reworking of Romeo and Juliet. They heard her but couldn't see her, even though she was just a few feet away.
IRENE: And one of them stopped, and he's like 'Hey guys, wait up. Wait up. You hear that? You hear that?' ... And one guy said 'No, no, no, no, that can't be real, it can't be real. It's too good to be real. And one dude said, 'No man, that's it! It's too good to NOT be real!' 
REPORTER: The group stood there debating this for about 5 minutes. Except for this one kid who wasn't talking. He was just standing on the sidewalk, transfixed. As if he'd never heard anything like it before. That, she said, was the best part of all.

 


Irene Roberts 

 

Irene Roberts is a mezzo soprano who was most recently in the Met production of Parsifal.

Recently, she was in her living room, singing an aria from "I Capuleti e i Montecchi" -- a reworking of Romeo and Juliet -- when a bunch of middle-school boys walked by, outside. They heard her singing but couldn't see her, even though she was just a few feet away.

"And one of them stopped, and he's like 'Hey guys, wait up. Wait up. You hear that? You hear that?' ... And one guy said 'No, no, no, no, that can't be real, it can't be real. It's too good to be real. And one dude said, 'No man, that's it! It's too good to NOT BE REAL!'" 

The group stood there debating this for about 5 minutes. Except for this one kid who wasn't talking. He was just standing on the sidewalk, transfixed. As if he'd never heard anything like it before. That, said Roberts, was the best part of all.

 

Editors:

Karen Frillmann

Contributors:

Paul Schneider

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Comments [22]

Earl

This is my life right now. Total hell because I happen to be a musician. The neighbors think my banjo playing is an excuse for them to blast insanely loud subwoofers. Usually they are blasting video games that just make loud rumbling noises like gunfire and such. People need to get a life.

Jan. 05 2014 02:36 AM
Jeanette from Westchester County

I can totally relate to Beth's comment about the suburbs: The noise that those industrial-sized lawn mowers make is often hard to bear -- not to mention the leaf blowers, which seem to have replaced the much-quieter rake. I treasure the moments when the yard work machines and the barking dogs have quieted down, and all I can hear are the birds singing in the trees. Just as pleasant as the birdsong was my neighbor's son's guitar playing. He often sat on his porch and strummed away. It was acoustic, and, fortunately, I liked his choice of music. I missed it after he moved out.

Jun. 01 2013 08:35 AM
Ellen from Manhattan

Quiet has become more of a luxury than it once was. I wouldn't care of Horowitz himself lived next door to me, if I heard him practice, I'd ask him to stop. As I often think about young couples on the subway, get a room, and not next to mine.

May. 29 2013 10:01 PM
Liza

@Claudel - hehehe. "And get off my lawn!" At least that's what I get from your comment, which displays beautifully the intolerance and ignorance of a generation unwilling to bend, unwilling to acknowledge that there are situations in which the only option is to use the space in which one lives to make a living. I'm a musician, and I play the trombone. It's pretty loud, and I have the consideration to understand that practicing sometimes disturbs my neighbors. However, I don't have the money or the means to rent my own studio space. I get by as best as I can, and that's often barely. How I wish I could afford soundproofing, or my own house in the country! But I can't.

However, unlike many many people like you, who enjoy Bach on the radio but don't understand the practice and discipline it takes those musicians to record it for you to listen to, I am willing to compromise and make arrangements with my neighbors. I always approach them, introduce myself, and ask for times of day in which it would acceptable to practice. Most of the musicians I know do the same.

Ah, the loss of the "civilized" society of which you speak. No, that does not come from the music emanating from hard-working people's apartments. It comes from the loss of compassion, empathy, understanding, and tolerance. Egomania and selfishness? Perhaps we should take a second look at where those attributes are coming from. It's usually not the musician.

May. 15 2013 09:40 AM
Steve from New York

Try living below one. Piano music can absolutely become a public nuisance. I have read forum posts by people who play the piano who believe it is their right as rent-paying tenants to be able to practice. That may be true. But it still makes them bad neighbors.

May. 09 2013 07:49 PM
John from nyc

Who cares?

You're all overpaid scum who complain about how hard your lives are while you collect fat checks for having fun. Pity poor you.

May. 09 2013 02:22 PM
Alex Castelli

@Claudel: I agree with everything you eloquently said, except I don't think these featured musicians consider their neighbors "peasants & dolts". It's not like they are making all that noise going "haha watch me make my entire building miserable". In fact I think most of them understand the inconvenience they were causing and that they followed the noise rules of the building, etc. One of them even said she felt bad.

When neighbors bang on the ceiling without trying to have a proper conversation to work out an arrangement, they also contribute to the problem and hostile environment. As Ron from NYC put it, it's true that there are no reasonably priced practice facilities around and musicians are usually not allowed to use the practice rooms at their alma mater. It's hard no matter which side you're on, and I think reasonable cooperation/compromise from both sides is key.

Apr. 02 2013 01:29 PM

Sarah from Brooklyn and Ms. Grasso are the only people whose comments exemplify the now almost vanished understanding that fellow-feeling and a sense of moral responsibility for the impact one's actions have upon others are alone what make civilized life possible, especially in the inherently savage abyss that New York City has become in my 67+ years.

The selfishness, the egomania, the spoiled-child smugness of the actual and self-styled musicians (save Stephen Hough, God bless him!) that are displayed in this dismal article and in the majority of the comments are appalling. Music is ugly and deeply distressing noise, no more and no less, when access to it cannot be freely chosen, cannot be restricted and channeled; and having to endure the horrendous sound of an instrumentalist's practice or rehearsal or, worst of all, a vocalist's ugly scale practice is almost literally a torment of the damned.

WQXR has won my abiding gratitude for its ten days of nonstop Bach, most of it in genuinely distinguished performances. Fortunately for me, I did not have to negotiate with the station's administrative personnel to allow me time to sleep, work, and simply perform those minor rituals of life that flourish only in silence. I needed but to TURN OFF THE RADIO. Alas, that is not an option, mutatis mutandis, that Theresa Kim, Ellie Shearing, or the sax-wielding Mr. Leroux is prepared to grant those, like me, they clearly consider peasants and dolts.

Sarah and Ms. Grasso: How I wish I could be a tenant in a building with the two of you!

Mar. 31 2013 01:58 PM
Leslie from Belfast, Maine

If Richard Goode lived next to me, he could practice 24/7. I couldn't care what. I'd be in heaven.

Mar. 29 2013 10:04 PM
beth from UWS

what would this city be without music being practiced and written in apartment buildings? hello!? thank goodness George Gershwin didn't care if his neighbors complained--it yielded "Rhapsody in Blue" (among other treasures!) from his 2nd floor UWS apartment.
If you don't like to hear music between floors, move to the burbs. (where you will hear barking dogs, people mowing their lawns at 7:30 AM, power-walking women complaining about their kids and husbands at full voice....)

Mar. 29 2013 07:39 PM
David from Flushing

Many leases, be they for rental or co-ops apartments, state that the unit is required to be for "residential use only." Using an apartment as a rehearsal studio runs afoul of this provision. Anyone attempting to offer music lessons in their unit in my co-op would promptly face action by the board.

Mar. 29 2013 04:33 PM
Sandy from New Hampshire

I too had a downstairs neighbor who banged on her ceiling with a broomstick every time I practiced the piano. She was a security guard for a local grocery store and had irregular hours. I wrote her a nice note and offered to adjust my practicing around her schedule if she would just tell me what it was. She wrote back that telling me her schedule would be an invasion of her privacy! The broomstick kept banging on the ceiling under me. One day she was driving in East Orange, NJ when a car pulled alongside her and a gunman shot her through the driver’s side window of her car. The bullet went through her jaw on one side and out through her cheek on the other, narrowly missing her tongue and eye. She survived, but not long afterwards she moved to Florida. Then I was able to practice in peace.

Mar. 29 2013 09:25 AM
Robert Cowie from Brooklyn

I'm a professional pianist, and in 2002, I was literally run out the co-op apartment in Park Slope, that I had owned(!) since 1998, by my downstairs neighbor and co-op board. I had only ever practiced on my real piano between the hours of 8am and 6pm on weekdays (when my neighbor was out of her apt at work). Then in 2002, my neighbor started working from home and felt that I shouldn't be able to practice in my home during those hours as well. The co-op board agreed with her and threatened to evict me if I didn't comply. It was awful and ugly. Fortunately, the market for apts had gone up in those 5 years, and I sold for 2.5 times what I had originally paid. This gave me a down-payment on a house in Windsor Terrace where I can practice at 2am and no one is bothered! All's well that ends well!

Mar. 29 2013 07:56 AM
Polly van der Linde from Bennington, VT

I remember during my NYC apartment living days while I was practicing the piano, having someone actually show me their wrath by hitting the ceiling above them with their broomstick. The nice thing was that it was usually in sync with my tempo and rhythm. The bad thing is that it continued even though I was either finished or taking a break. Because of this, I like to think that someone chose to find a new way to exercise. But, I'd go loony hearing someone playing scales and arpeggios for hours, too.

Fun article, thank you.
Polly van der Linde
Now, thankfully, living in a large house in VT where I can play 24/7!

Mar. 28 2013 04:48 PM
Sylvain Leroux from New York City

I am a flutist and also play alto sax. I don't play it very much in my apartment because it is so loud, but sometimes I must, like when I have to learn the music for a concert. One early afternoon I started warming up on the sax when there was a knock on the door: my neighbor was standing there and he proceeded to tell me that this was totally unacceptable and that I had to stop. That the flute playing was already trying but the sax was too much. I tried to have a discussion about it, explaining that I am a professional musician and I need to practice for a gig, that I have been living here a long time, that I don't play sax very often in the house, that NYC is a world capital for the arts, that it was the middle of the day... None of these arguments made an impression, his position was that he has an absolute right not to be disturbed and that this was way too loud to be played in the building. At that point I politely told him that if he had a problem he should call the police and after closing the door I went on to play as loud as I could for the next couple of hours. The police did not come. Although, when I play I can from time to time hear doors slamming in the building.

Epilogue: I told this story to a guitarist-friend and his reaction was: "poor guy, the alto-sax is the ugliest sounding instrument in the world. Bird is about the only cat who could make it sound nice." ;-(

Mar. 28 2013 03:10 PM
Sophie from UWS in NYC

Neighbor noise is an annoyance of apartment living and it's virtually impossible and prohibitively expensive to "soundproof" a room not built specifically to contain sound. To complicate the issue further, many New Yorkers work odd hours or work from home and complain about noise during the day, so there really isn't any safe time to make a lot of noise without someone hearing it. It's a give and take, and I swear some people become obsessive and neurotic about noise. There must be therapists who specialize in these clients.

Mar. 28 2013 02:38 PM
Ron from NYC

Sarah from Brooklyn, the reason that the housing courts have been sympathetic to practicing musicians, and in almost all cases side with the musicians, is that they have deemed it virtually impossible for the vast majority of musicians to do their work anywhere else. Graduates of music schools do not have the right to play at their alma mater. Even if they did, those rooms are almost always full. There are not reasonably priced rental practice facilities anywhere. Most musicians try to work with their neighbors and find ways to muffle the sound enough to where it is just like any other vertical community reality, such as TV, talking, radio, and the like....

Mar. 28 2013 01:00 PM
Linda M. Grasso from Brooklyn New York

The story was lovely and charming and totally one-sided. Sarah from Brooklyn says it best. How about doing a piece for those of us who crave quiet? On public transportation we are subjected to noise bursting ear-buds; in our apartments--especially if they are wood-frame and built in the 1920s, we hear television and music and all else of daily living, including the most mundane and intimate; in the streets, jack-hammers. I'd love to hear a piece about how people cope, and better yet: Are there apartment buildings in which sound does not penetrate walls and ceilings? In which you do not hear each other sneezing? Buildings which are known for their suppression of sound transfer? Where are they and how do we find out about them? I have often fantasized about creating a common community of like-minded souls who cherish quiet in which to work, think, and sleep.

Mar. 28 2013 01:00 PM
Sarah from Brooklyn

As a musician and longtime NYC-dweller, you'd imagine I'd sympathize with the folks in this piece. I don't. People shouldn't foist their music (recorded or performed live) on nearby dwellers, unless they are willing to acknowledge that they are being rude and inconsiderate. I'm a landlord and I don't do that to my tenant who lives below me. Listening to someone *practicing* on an instrument is annoying for pretty much anyone but the person doing it. Even Richard Goode, whom I deeply admire and whose recordings I own -- I wouldn't want to live next door to him.

There are practice rooms -- on campuses and in rental studios -- for people who play instruments that cannot be headphoned.

Mar. 28 2013 11:42 AM
Arun

Teresa from NYC: the George Shearing track is "On the Street Where You Live" from The George Shearing Collection 1939-58 Vol. 2.

Mar. 28 2013 11:31 AM
Teresa from NYC

As a casual pianist living in a NYC apartment building, I definitely do not like to turn down the volume on my digital piano or worse, wear headphones. That said, I empathize with the neighbors as a home is definitely a rare sanctuary from all the hustle and bustle of the city.

Anyone know the name of the beautiful piece of piano music played during the George Shearing segment?

Mar. 28 2013 11:24 AM
frances friedman from NYC

One problem is that some buildings are built better than others. I used to live back-to-back with a pianist. I could hear him but it was muffled and very tolerable. I have double rugs under my piano and check with the neighbors to make sure their OK. It's not the best reflection of the sound I make but I'd also soundproof the room if necessary.
When the neighbor's son upstairs plays the piano, he truly might as well be in any room of my apartment! People have the right to make noise but it's also right to consider your setup, thinness of walls, etc., and take responsible action.

Mar. 28 2013 11:23 AM

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