Several people including a lawyer have sent me a link to yesterday’s BBC news story about a pianist in Spain whose neighbour took her to court over her piano practising, alleging ‘psychological harm’ from having to listen to it. Spanish prosecutors had initially sought a jail term of over seven years, and now they are asking that the pianist be banned from professional piano playing for six months.
Every pianist’s blood must run cold at this story, for many of us have wrestled with ‘the neighbour problem’ over the years. Yet there are lots of questions I’d like to ask about this Spanish story. Did the young pianist really play for eight hours a day, five days a week as alleged? She was a music college student at the time. So how could she have been at home to practise for eight hours a day? Was she never attending classes, never practising at college? Which hours of the day did she play at home – normal hours or unsocial hours? Many cities have regulations which apply to practising an instrument in apartment buildings. In London we don’t, as far as I know, but a musician friend in Switzerland lives in an apartment block where he is officially allowed to practise between the hours of 9am-1pm and 3pm-8pm or something like that. Admittedly, for a very sensitive person, or for one confined to the house by ill health, listening to someone practising the piano even during those permitted hours could be a burden. Pianos and apartment buildings don’t go together, but for many pianists there is no alternative. Was the Spanish pianist aware of her neighbour’s distress? Did she try to negotiate or compromise?
What never seems to be mentioned in these stories is that the ‘psychological harm’ can go both ways. When I first moved to London to try to carve out a career, I bought an old Bechstein grand piano and moved it into rented accommodation. I have never been one of those ‘eight hours a day’ practisers, and I rarely practise at home in the evenings, so I’ve never considered my piano practice unduly tough for my neighbours. Nevertheless, when I started playing the piano in my first London accommodation, my next-door neighbours started banging on the wall. It was a thick Victorian wall, too, so they must have used more than a human fist to bang so loudly. It sounded as if they were using a battering-ram.
I was horrified. I tried to vary the hours when I played the piano, but whenever I started up, the banging would begin, seemingly inches away from my left ear. I found that I was tensing up before I made the first sound. I always started gingerly, waiting with dread for the banging to begin, and of course there was hardly a moment when I could relax and enjoy music-making. It was hard on my technique as well as my nerves. My neighbour graduated to banging on the front door. On the one occasion that I opened the door, he said, ‘We’ll get you out in the end.’ And indeed, it didn’t take long for me to conclude that I wasn’t up to the daily battle. I didn’t want him to think he had won, but I couldn’t see any positives in staying. If ‘psychological harm’ was caused, I’d maintain that it was done to me at least as much as to my neighbour. It was an unfortunate start to life as a professional pianist, and since then I have always looked for houses with ‘halls adjoining’, so that there is no party wall between my music room and any room in the house next door.
Today there are digital pianos which you can practise in silence, but that’s not the reality for most classical pianists who need to play acoustic pianos at home. It’s all very well to say that we should go out and practise somewhere else, but where? After you’ve finished life as a student, you don’t have access to music colleges with practice rooms any more. Friends have neighbours too. And most classical musicians certainly can’t afford to rent a separate studio – what kind of studio would it be, anyway, that carried no risk of disturbing anyone in the building? No: for most pianists there is no alternative to playing at home, and hoping against hope that their neighbours are kind and tolerant – perhaps even that they enjoy live music.