It’s 3 p.m. on a Monday, and Howard Music Hall is full of practicing musicians who have just come from class. As you walk down the hall, a soprano with her face turned away from the window belts a high “C,” only to be drowned out by the pianist in the next room who’s pounding out his Rachmaninoff concerto for competition next week. The rest of the hallway is a clashing cacophony of brass, strings, and cymbals, accompanied by fragments of hallway chatter.
The music hall practice rooms need better soundproofing. The constant noise distracts practicing musicians, and the consciousness of other listeners discourages their creativity during practice sessions. If even four of the hall’s 23 practice rooms had soundproofing, then music students, who make up about one-third of the total student body according to an estimate from The Collegian last year, would benefit greatly from having an occasional opportunity to practice in silence.
Music department chairman James Holleman said soundproofing was discussed before the dedication of Howard Music Hall in 2003. The music department formerly shared the Sage Center with the art and theater departments, and the sound coming from the upstairs practice rooms in Sage often disturbed other activities in the building. But Holleman said he personally opposed soundproofing the new practice rooms when they moved to Howard because he believed the sound-filled atmosphere creates an environment of productivity.
“When we’re sharing a building with art and theater, it’s noise,” Holleman said. “If you’re just a music facility, then it’s activity, and I think activity is positive.”
Some students agreed with this perspective.
“I kind of like that it’s not soundproofed because it helps us get over ourselves,” senior Micah Heinz said. “I may be more comfortable in performance because people have heard me mess it up a thousand times downstairs.”
Voice teacher Kristi Matson also noted that the sound creates a sort of camaraderie in the hallways, even though it can distract.
Nevertheless, many students dislike the situation as it stands.
“When you are working really hard on a piece, and a lot of other sounds are filtering in through the walls, it just breaks down your concentration,” junior pianist Molly Schutte said.
Others said they often feel nervous to express themselves freely during practice times, since the sound carries so well. Even upperclassmen with years of experience feel self-conscious when curious passersby steal a glance through the window to see who is playing.
“I remember when I started practicing for the concerto competition last year,” senior vocalist Katie Scheu said in an email. “One of my pieces was full of vocal trills, which I didn’t know how to do yet. My voice teacher recommended I take a few sheets of paper with me to the practice rooms so that I could tape them to the door when I started working through those trills. Imagine wobbling your voice up and down until you can achieve a full operatic trill — it’s totally embarrassing until you get it right.”
The solution, then, is to provide a few — perhaps four — practice rooms with complete soundproofing, leaving the rest as they are. This way, the department can retain its active and comradely atmosphere, while also allowing students the opportunity, on occasion, to practice in solitude. The jazz room in particular should receive soundproofing, since it often houses full bands that create large distractions for other musicians.
Noise isolation requires sound-blocking materials, such as a heavy and properly-sealed acoustic door, according to Brian Atkinson, client development manager from ABD Engineering and Design in Grand Rapids. Holleman estimated the cost to soundproof one of the smaller rooms would cost approximately $2,000.
The practice room should be a place where students can experiment with new ideas without strains of French horn filtering in from the next room or the consciousness of other listeners shattering the imagination. While students should learn to ignore outside commotion to some extent and not allow themselves to become too affected by self-doubt, every musician needs an occasional hour of solitude to focus his or her thoughts. Let’s allow practice time to be practice time and save performances for the semester’s end.
Brooke Conrad is a junior studying English.