Thursday, September 10, 2020

Practice Room Alternatives

“Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.” Henry Ford

Social distancing has meant the closure of numerous schools and buildings, and many musicians now find themselves unable to access their usual practice space. In particular, students are having difficulty finding a place to practice, as even schools that are reopening for in-person classes are imposing significant restrictions on practice room and classroom usage.

Below are my top ten practice room alternatives. I wrote this with brass players in mind, but many of these are good options for other musicians as well.

10. Practice mute

It seems the most common practice room alternative is the practice mute. Many different types of practice mutes are available, and they certainly will soften the sound of a brass instrument. However, this is my least favorite option— for a brass player, playing in a practice mute is very unlike playing the instrument itself. The resistance and intonation of a practice mute are often problematic.

Once in a lesson with Barbara Butler, I blamed my poor playing on having been on the road and mostly using a practice mute in the preceding weeks, to which she responded, “Get rid of it, practice mutes are career killers.”

While practice mute practice may be a good option for use on an occasional basis, most musicians will want to find a better long-term solution.

9. Practice igloo

A great practice room alternative is the practice igloo, also known as the practice cave. Phil Smith and Joe Alessi made this humorous YouTube video about how they use a practice igloo to practice when they were on the road with the New York Philharmonic. 

Essentially, take a bunch of pillows and blankets, stack them up on a bed like an igloo, and then play your instrument into this igloo. It works surprisingly well and quiets the sound without creating the unnatural resistance of a practice mute.

8. Practice dresser

The practice dresser is my variation of the practice igloo. When I'm traveling and staying in hotels, if the room has a chest of drawers / dresser for clothing, I like to fill it with clothing, blankets, pillows, etc., and then extend the dresser drawer just slightly. I then place the rim of the bell (only) into the dresser, rest it gently at the front of the drawer, and play freely. (Many dressers have little cutouts, meant for your hand to pull, that are the perfect size to rest a trumpet bell.)  Coupled with the hotel room's rolling office chair, this makes for a comfortable setup for a good routine where you can play freely without the resistance of a mute, and without disturbing your neighbors.

7. Practice bucket

There are several varieties of the practice bucket, but my favorite is the one described in a recent social media post by Matt Anklan, trumpet professor at Ohio’s Miami University. This is an easy DIY project and supplies needed included a Home Depot bucket, twin mattress pad, 99¢ clamp from Home Depot, and one zip tie. Another version of a DIY practice bucket can be found here.

Matt Anklan demonstrates his DIY practice bucket

6. Open outdoor area

Parks, university green spaces, empty parking lots can all make for good practice areas. My institution, the University of Kentucky, recently set up several tents for outdoor student practice.

UK trumpet student Madison Barton practicing in an outdoor practice tent

5. Parking Garage

If you live in a metropolitan area there are probably many parking garages all over your city.  It’s not difficult to tuck into a corner with a music stand and practice.

4. Alternative spaces in an apartment complex

Perhaps your apartment complex has a basement, clubhouse, rooftop, laundry area, or other space where you can freely practice without disturbing your neighbors. If not, try to find a closet on an exterior wall (not shared with a neighbor) and play into a thick array of clothing.

3. Whisper Room

I recently was sent literature on the Whisper Room, a SoundIsolation Enclosure. These come in various sizes and can be a way to have a regular practice room in your apartment. 

2. Empty church

Churches have a lot of spaces that are great for musicians. Sanctuaries, classrooms, offices, etc. A large reverberate sanctuary is one of the best places to practice because you feel better about your playing (reverb) and are practicing in a space closer to an actual performance situation.

1. Live where you can practice freely

In my opinion, the best alternative to a practice room is to seek a place to live where you can practice. Whether this is a house or an apartment with thick walls (or understanding neighbors), it really is ideal if you can practice in the same building that you eat and sleep. Not only does this cut down on the hassle of the travel, scheduling, and availability associated with external practice spaces, but you have the added benefit of being able to take more breaks and practice whenever you want.  Ultimately, my advice to musicians is to remember their need for a time and space to practice when they seek a new place to live.


Jason Dovel is associate professor of trumpet at the University of Kentucky and a Yamaha Performing Artist. He is host of the annual UK Summer Trumpet Institute held every June in Lexington, KY (USA).


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