I once spent a great deal of time aboard a US Navy ship traveling from port to port. (It actually wasn’t all that bad!) My Navy band had a little compartment on the ship that could barely fit about 20 of us for ceremonial band rehearsals. Circumstances being what they were, those of us who chose to practice had to find another place on the ship. One common place was to be in the part of the ship where they stored the ropes. There was neither air conditioning nor heat, meaning January was chilly and summer travels by the equator were hot, humid, and very sweaty. I would stop, breathe three times, and tell myself “let’s go” whenever I would enter the area. Another common place was right next to a ventilation room in a small alcove, just down the hallway from the ship store. After some time, I eventually gained the ability to ignore all the drones, random sounds, and the 1MC ( the intercom system--except for the fire drill alarms). Most of my fellow musicians didn’t practice. On most days, I would wake up, go to quarters for accountability, practice until lunch, eat lunch, practice until dinner, eat dinner, and then go to bed. I have no idea what gave me the fortitude to spend so much time in the austere conditions. Perhaps boredom mixed with my looming fall recitals compelled me.
Both spots tended to have lots of traffic. Besides a cracked clarinet, one unexpected consequence was that the other sailors on the ship had the opportunity to hear a musician practicing. Although there was the occasional grumpy person who wondered why a band would be on a ship (a great question indeed), some would stop to talk to me about how they were in the Navy, and most would say a simple “Great job!” (As an aside, someone once asked another person in the band what I had done wrong to be forced to practice so much.) Typically, my practicing (with all its technical flaws) was met with a smile. It made me think: virtually no one in the public ever watches or listens to a musician practice individually. My suspicion is that most people assume that performances happen effortlessly--the reason why we do music is because of our innate talent. Seeing and sometimes speaking to someone practice gave them an opportunity to see what goes into a performance. I think it helped humanize the band a bit--we did work, as well (although there were plenty of people who thought we didn’t).
Post-Navy while I was working on a master’s from UCSD’s School of Global Policy and Strategy, I would practice in the parking garage because 1) the department of music was very far from my school and 2) San Diego weather meant that it was typically rather nice to play in the garage. Here, I noticed curiosity in what I was doing. The ghost in the parking garage...again, I was typically greeted with smiles and conversation. One skateboarder gave me the most glowing review I’ve ever received: “That’s so dope.”
What if more people practiced in public places? Discretion is important, but I feel that it could help make the world a better place. People could hear more live music, and it would get them talking to more of them. I even had some people come to a recital because they heard me practicing in the garage. It also moves musicians from the practice room into the world. It makes us a part of it--and perhaps could inspire to think more about unusual performance spaces. (Parking Garage Performances could be a nice recital series.) When was the last time you felt truly connected to the broader world when you were playing your instrument? For those of us who can play, giving our sounds (even if they’re not perfect to us) is the greatest gift we can give.