Practice rooms in short supply

In search of a place to practice the piano, Madeline Blount ’08 visits the Davenport common room, the Pierson common room and then the Branford basement, hoping to find an instrument that is both unoccupied and unlocked.

“I feel like I have to go piano-hunting,” she said.

A Trumbull student practices piano in one of the coveted practice rooms. Many students complain about both the low quality and the lack of these rooms.
Chris Young
A Trumbull student practices piano in one of the coveted practice rooms. Many students complain about both the low quality and the lack of these rooms.

Blount is not alone in her time-consuming search, as many of Yale’s student musicians — especially pianists — struggle with a lack of practice space. Administrators said they are attempting to allay the problem with an upcoming renovation of Hendrie Hall, but frustrated undergraduates said the crowding in Sprague Hall, the deterioration of pianos in Hendrie and the inaccessible or ill-equipped residential college music facilities can make practicing their instruments a stressful proposition.

Part of the problem, students said, is the preference given to graduate students at the School of Music over undergraduates with regard to practice space.

Only graduate students are allowed to sign up for a time slot in one of the 14 piano practice rooms in Sprague or the 20 rooms at another building at 320 Temple St., said Thomas Masse, deputy dean of the School of Music. Undergraduates taking lessons for credit can use any vacant room they find, though they may be kicked out at any time if the graduate student assigned to that room arrives.

Masse said he is aware that some undergraduates have difficulties finding pianos, but that students seem able to coordinate their schedules to take advantage of less busy hours of the day.

Jeffrey Weng ’08, who takes piano lessons for credit, said he started using the pianos in Sprague during the middle of the day, a non-peak time, after being kicked out of practice rooms repeatedly when he went in the evening.

“Basically, my impression is that if I’m not too picky, I can usually find something,” Weng said.

A popular alternative to Sprague Hall is 320 Temple St., which students praised for its well-maintained pianos, although they said they also have trouble finding practice space there.

Masse said space constraints are an issue at universities around the country, as few schools have enough practice rooms to accommodate all their student musicians. Despite the difficulties, he said, Yale has increased its practice space as well as improved the availability, security and quality of rooms over the past ten years.

But piano students said some of the major Yale practice rooms are almost unusable. Student musicians judged the practice modules on the third floor of Hendrie to be particularly poor.

“[Hendrie] is a total joke,” Weng said. “The pianos are always out of tune, and the pedals are broken … I generally try to avoid it as much as possible, because it’s really awful.”

Masse said Hendrie is scheduled to receive a complete face-lift in the next few years. Plans for the renovation, which will create new music practice rooms, studio offices, performance spaces and seminar rooms, are in the conceptual design phase, University Planner Laura Cruickshank said. Construction is slated to begin in late 2008, and the building should be ready for occupation by fall 2010, she said.

During the renovation of Hendrie, the amount of practice space available to individuals and performing ensembles will be significantly decreased — a problem the University is giving serious thought, Masse said. But administrators have not yet decided upon a plan to address the issue, he said.

All students can use the music facilities located in each residential college, but students said many of the pianos in residential college practice rooms are in disrepair.

“The practice pianos in the basement of Pierson are horrible,” Blount said. “If you’re going to have a music practice room, make sure the pianos work. A lot of times, the keys stick, and some of the pianos are terribly out of tune.”

Alternatives to the college practice rooms are pianos located in college common rooms. But some of these pianos are locked, which struck Blount as odd because people should be able to play them at any time, she said.

Branford Master Steven Smith, whose college has a Bechstein piano in its common room, said he keeps the piano locked except for special events or recitals.

“It’s a concert piano,” Smith said. “It’s not for banging around on.”

Kate Swisher ’09, who takes piano lessons for credit, said she feels uncomfortable playing on the Timothy Dwight common room piano.

“Whenever you play on a common room piano, it’s more like you’re giving a concert than practicing,” Swisher said. “It gets rid of the individual aspect of practicing, which is important.”

Instead, Swisher said, she uses the practice rooms in Sprague during the middle of the day, when she has a better chance of getting a room.

Solo pianists are not the only ones scrambling to find practice space. Students in chamber music groups as part of the “Performance of Chamber Music” class often have trouble locating practice rooms when rehearsing without their coach, Sabrina Poon ’07 said.

“When we rehearse alone, it’s a little trickier,” Poon said. “We usually end up finding something in Sprague, but we don’t officially have access to those rooms — we just go and see if we can find anything.”

Life is easier for students who play portable instruments, like Mackenzie Wehner ’08. Wehner said she usually practices her cello in her dormitory and has used practice rooms no more than three times. But she added that she has been fortunate to have bedrooms large enough to accommodate her cello practice.

Students underscored that when it comes to finding a practice room, timing is everything.

“I’ve never had any trouble finding a place to practice,” David DeAngelis ’08 said. “Maybe I just practice at times when no one else is practicing.”

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