By Mary Buckingham and Laura Sauer
As the pandemic has progressed, students have discovered an unlikely practice haven: the nearby parking garage! The sound of brass instruments has now become familiar to many Bienen students as they walk into the Ryan Center for the Musical Arts. This is a welcoming sound, reminding all that they are in a place where music still is created, shared, and vital.
Hunter Farley is a first-year master’s student studying tuba performance with Gene Pokorny and Matthew Gaunt, and he’s been taking advantage of the parking garage for practice sessions, lessons, and even to perform in duos and trios outdoors. When asked what initially drew Farley to this practice space, he shared, “It was nice to get some fresh air and the acoustics made it fun.”
On top of being an enjoyable place to practice, the parking garage also has provided Farley the opportunity to move out of the virtual space for some lessons, allowing his teachers to fine-tune his playing live rather than over a media platform like Zoom. Farley, like many Bienen students, has benefited from a combination of remote and in-person instruction during the past year, including some lessons in larger Bienen School indoor spaces that allow appropriate social distancing.
Gaunt relishes the opportunity to hear his students in person: “As Hunter was a new student to us this academic year, meeting in person has been invaluable. There are benefits to online lessons, but there is no substitute for hearing the detail of live sound. For some students, their recording setup hides imperfections in tone production, but for others, it adds imperfections that are not actually there.”
“An extra but important benefit of outdoor lessons is the added performance pressure,” Gaunt explains. “I remember a lesson with Hunter in which we were working on orchestral audition excerpts. There were a number of people walking by, and being heard by faculty and staff certainly adds some extra pressure. Learning how to deal with that is helpful.”
Gaunt also noted the acoustical benefits in playing in larger spaces. “The echo and reverberation of the garage’s acoustics are great for working on intonation. With the sound bouncing around and lasting so long, you can certainly hear if you are in tune with yourself.”
Pokorny also has ample experience playing outdoors and appreciates its many benefits: “Taking lessons in a parking garage or ‘out in the open’ helps the student and instructor deal with real sound, resonance, and projection. Growing up in Southern California with its nearly perfect year-round weather lent itself to practicing outdoors often. It makes a difference to practice, receive lessons, and to give lessons in large, open spaces—be it a garage, field, under a tree outside of violinist Jascha Heifetz’s studio at the University of Southern California, by the railroad tracks (my personal favorite) or, if the weather is challenging, in a large hall or church.”
For the tuba, Pokorny explains that playing in larger spaces gives the player a properly sized resonating space for the long sound waves and volume contrasts of the instrument. “An added benefit is the psychological awareness it provides the student in terms of needing to project all the way to the exit sign in a concert hall’s upper balcony; that is a lot different than the student projecting all the way to the coat closet in their bedroom. I have taken my tuba on vacations—especially out west—where I have played at such places as Arizona’s Echo Canyon trail or Utah’s Arches National Park. If I am there at a time with few or no visitors, I will let loose an array of sound to hear the echo return to me. To be in places as beautiful as that and play some Bach just seems right.”
Although Farley agrees that the use of this space is a timely solution for pandemic practice and lessons, he indicated that he may use the parking garage even after the pandemic is over. “It is nice to play in the big area to really get a full sound. At first, I was nervous that people could hear me practicing all the time, but now I enjoy playing for people and hope that it makes their day to hear music coming from such an unlikely location.”
Mary Buckingham is a master’s voice and opera student and Laura Sauer is Assistant Director of Admission at the Bienen School of Music.