An urban musician’s guide to practicing in crammed apartments—and navigating the busy streets
By Cristina Schreil
“In order to survive as a musician here you have to be a hard worker, have talent, have guts,” violinist Sarah Franklin says in her “tiny” Upper West Side studio apartment. She’s lived in New York City for nearly nine years, and has called the one-room abode home for almost three.
“Aside from a big bed in the corner, a jumble of violin cases and case covers, and a pair of music stands by a window overlooking a busy street, a noticeable attribute is the empty space in the middle of the room—for practicing. Practice, the 30-year-old musician says, is key to keeping up with the city’s competitive music scene. “You have to constantly be practicing and up your game.”
Like many young performers, Franklin is a freelance violinist. She’s filled her time with a diverse array of gigs since getting her master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music in 2009. Any given week, she’s switching gears a lot, preparing to play in a quartet at a wedding one minute, an orchestra the next. There’s a lot of repertoire to get through.
It was about a half hour before her building’s designated quiet hours began when she heard stomping in the unit above. She had been playing with her rubber mute, but switched to her Yamaha Silent Violin, playing more softly.
“You have to learn pieces really quickly and be very particular about your practice,” she says. “You have to be very focused, you have to find your spots that are really difficult and work on those, so you’re maximizing your productivity . . . . This is my job; I have to do it.”
But as many urban musicians have come to know, not everyone is supportive about practice time. One evening, while preparing for a big orchestral audition—“I was playing on overdrive all the time,” Franklin says—it was about half an hour before her building’s designated quiet hours began when she heard some stomping in the unit above. The stomping upstairs turned to stomping down the stairs, which then abruptly stopped, Franklin says. She had been playing with her rubber mute, but switched to her Yamaha Silent Violin. She still sensed something was off. She stopped practice at 10 pm. The next morning she found a typed note in her mailbox: “Would appreciate it if you could hold down the noise a bit at night.”
She said it wasn’t comparable to other “horror stories” she’s heard that range from intolerance and annoyance to outright hostility—of neighbors constantly complaining or landlords getting involved.
Some strategies, like installing expensive or heavy sound-dampening panels, renting out a regular practice studio space, or moving somewhere outside of the city are not options for many city musicians, so, like many, Franklin turned to tech. She bought a Yamaha SV-130 Silent Violin, which she plays with headphones. “It doesn’t have the resonating properties of my acoustic violin,” she says. Demonstrating, she explains that she doesn’t have to hold back with the bow pressure and, while quieter, the SV 130 still has the same sonority. She also has a heavy rubber Ultra Practice mute by Glaesel, which is ideal for the beginning stages of learning a piece.
Besides the hurdle of practicing without disturbing anyone, city life also poses other challenges to the busy musician, such as navigating crowded trains and buses, being at the mercy of the elements, and finding proper storage for gear. Here are some products that could help.
A player favorite for dampening sound while practicing is the heavy rubber, five-prong Ultra Practice mute by Glaesel. Many players say it cuts the volume output by more than half. It’s also a better long-term practice option than some bare metal mutes, which can damage the instrument.
Another well-rated practice mute is the Otto Musica Artino, which is a traditional heavy metal mute, with a rubber coating added to protect the bridge. The heavier construction (it weighs about 2 oz) allows for practice at a significantly lower volume. Some players have said it doesn’t perfectly fit their instrument, so take time to test what’s right for you.
For players who can’t stand the change in tone that some rubber or metal mutes create, the String Zone in the United Kingdom sells a lightweight leather mute, which positive reviews reflect makes a mellow muffled tone. It doesn’t make playing as quiet as other mutes, but can provide a helpful middle ground between muting and maintaining the instrument’s natural sound.
Urban-Friendly Cases and Case Covers
Hiscox hard-shell cases are known for sturdy construction—a handy feature when carting a delicate instrument around a busy city where anything can happen. The company makes a wheeled cello case with recessed pulling handles. Franklin opts for a water-resistant slip-on cover by Mooradian, which she says is not fully waterproof but is great at regulating outside temperatures when she bounces to and fro on public transit. The case cover can come with either padded backpack straps—handy on crowded trains or busses—or padded shoulder straps.
Another option is a case cover by Cushy. The deluxe carry-all will fit over many oblong violin cases, and has storage compartments and backpack straps. It also has reflective piping, helping drivers see you when you’re walking home from a late-night gig.
Shar Music sells a kit that turns your cello case—if it already has a single-top D-ring or side-by-side top D-rings—into a backpack.
Franklin uses a Yamaha SV-130 Silent Violin for practice. She says she doesn’t have to hold back on her bowing and isn’t afraid of sound carrying too far. Most models come with their own shoulder rest and headphones.
Another good option for those just crossing into silent-string instrument territory, at a lower price, is a Plug ’n Play electric violin. Like the Yamaha, these models come with headphones.
Other players look to the NS Design series. These instruments are at a higher price point, but are highly rated for easy playability, and have volume, bass, and treble controls.
ChromaCast sells a highly rated lightweight folding music stand that comes with a carry bag. Online reviewers say it takes up little space, folds smoothly, and is ideal for practice. Others say it’s not as sturdy as they would like. Tiny-apartment dwellers may get a lot of use out of a tabletop music stand by Hamilton, which can stay put on a table or countertop, or be transported around.
A sturdier option is the Troubadour stand by Portastand. This stand, which has a solid metal desk, is strong enough to hold laptops and tablets, according to manufacturers, making it a multifunction surface in a small apartment. It can be detached and turned into a tabletop desk. It comes with a carrying case and shoulder strap, which are a bit large and could be clunky on crowded public transportation.
Many musicians living in urban environments are opting for metronome and tuner apps over buying a separate device—handy for saving even the smallest amount of space—and popular ones include Pro Metronome and Tempo, which is said to be among the most accurate metronome apps out there.
Franklin uses Cleartune, which has a large display. Other popular options are TonalEnergy and Tunable, both of which combine a metronome, tone generator, and tuner. Tunable also has a recording function. Musicians with tablets can opt for the forScore sheet-music app, which can be handy if packing or storing sheet music is a hassle. Another popular app is Sit-ins Music, which promises to help players “practice smarter.”
Features include the ability to slow down the tempo of a piece and loop sections while playing along.
City apartments often come with temperatures that are beyond a tenant’s control. Franklin uses a humidifier by Holmes to cope with temperature fluctuations brought on by the heater turning on and off, especially as seasons change.
D’Addario also makes a popular small-instrument humidifier. To see if there’s an issue to begin with, you can purchase a hygrometer for around $8 or a humidity and temperature sensor by D’Addario.
If you’re able, installing a door-jam seal can decrease the amount of practice noise coming from your apartment. Acoustical Solutions sells a variety.
And if you’re renting and don’t want to compromise your floors and risk a security deposit, floor protectors for music stands can be a key investment. Shar Music sells floor protector by Manhasset and rubber feet for studio chairs.