Will everyone hate us for our beautiful music?
November 26, 2006 8:15 PM   Subscribe

My husband plays saxophone. Should this affect whether we buy a house or a condo? I'm interested in anecdotes from musicians, and also from their neighbors.

We're hoping to become homeowners sometime next summer or fall. It seems like the nicest places we can afford -- in terms of square feet, new construction, great location -- are condos, where we'd have our own home inside a building we share with five or 10 other homeowners.

I've looked at a few standard homeowner covenants for condos, and they prety much include two clauses: one that worries me and one that calms me. It's against the rules to play loud music or do other things that might disturb your neighbors. But it's expected that you'll sometimes hear noises through the floors and walls.

Are we likely to get in trouble with a homeowner association for 1-2 hours of practice most days of the week? My husband only plays between about 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. He's a jazz musician, and he's pretty good in my opinion.

It's important that wherever we live, we are able to be on good terms with our neighbors. But it's also important that my husband be able to practice.

Any thoughts? Are the troubles that come with shared living great enough that we should give up on condos and live in older/crappier/worse neighborhoods in order to buy a house? Or are we likely worrying about nothing?
posted by croutonsupafreak to Home & Garden (26 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I live in a building with lots of conservatory students (college level), and I pretty much only hear them practicing when they leave their windows open. (My close neighbors have played flute and piano, so I don't know whether a sax's sound would carry more.) Far more noisy are people above who seem to be stampeding all over their apartment or people playing recorded music (on stereos). It's never been a problem for me.
posted by Airhen at 8:45 PM on November 26, 2006

we should give up on condos and live in older/crappier/worse neighborhoods in order to buy a house?

I don't want to sound judgemental, and I don't know what it's like where you are, but we bought an older house in an older neighbourhood (not "crappier" or "worse") as opposed to a shiny condo. You may find that older neighbourhoods where you have regular contact with neighbours instead of just nodding to someone once in a while in a parking garage are much more conducive to tolerance of music/volume. In our neighbourhood it seems like 4 out of 5 people are musicians or radio or tv people. Our friends on the other side of our paper-thin semi-detatched house wall are musicians and we hear them all the time and them us and it's okay and kind of cool.
I can't imagine being able to play my guitar and record stuff in a condo. Old neighbourhoods rock. Get a cool old house with character.
posted by chococat at 8:48 PM on November 26, 2006

My boyfriend owns a condo, and plays guitar. He doesn't crank his amps to 11 and keeps to decent hours, but he does play fairly loud; loud enough to make the couch shake in the next room if there's enough bass, and to hear him in the shared hallway. But in his 5+ years of being here, he's only had 1 noise complaint. That was from his neighbor whose bedroom is next to his spare bedroom/music room, and for some reason he was playing loud (and angry) at 1am.

But his condo is extremely well built, and relatively little sound travels from unit to unit. I, on the other hand, have lived in places where when the neighbor's door bell rings, I get up to answer it.

Now, saxes don't quite have the same volume control an amp does, but it can't be that much louder than some loud music, can it? (I played years ago in school, but for the life of me I can't remember how loud it was).

If i was in your position, I'd look at condos as well, but pay very, very close attention to how well the building is built, and how thick and insulated the walls are. In my bf's unit I can definitely hear him playing but it's buffered enough to tune it out and sleep if he's in the spare bedroom and I'm in the master bedroom, with both doors shut (the rooms do not share any walls, however). When house hunting, bring a stereo, crank it up to an approximate volume, and see where and how loud you can hear it.
posted by cgg at 8:54 PM on November 26, 2006

If I could hear on of my neighbours playing jazz sax for two to three hours a day I'd go completely spare. Then again, I don't like jazz.

The hours of 5pm to 10pm are prime chilling time for pretty much everyone with a job. If you get a condo I think you'd be opening yourself up to potential problems if not now, in the future. I'm pretty mellow about most things neighbourwise (I live next door to a DJ) but there's no way I could deal with that.
posted by fshgrl at 9:07 PM on November 26, 2006

In places like condos, you can never tell what the hours may be of your neighbours... there's always that chance that when your husband practices, you could catch the neighbour who works the night shift or just someone on a bad day. My gf live sunderneath an opera singer, which was okay for the most part, but there are times when you want to take a nap on a Saturday afternoon and it's too loud.

I know that there are electronic practice mutes for brass instruments and I did a quick Google search and found this. Perhaps it, or something similar, can be of use to your husband.
posted by perpetualstroll at 9:24 PM on November 26, 2006

Like chococat says (and he knows from Music), don't be too scared away from "bad" neighborhoods, but here's an idea -- have him bring the sax along when you go house/condo hunting and have him lay down a few licks while you scout out nearby locations to see how well the sound travels (the hallway, an upstairs/downstairs unit, across the street, etc.). My one concern would be 9-10pm gets to be past bedtime for people (especially kids). I think the key is to get a ruling from the Condo Association as to what hours are considered noise-acceptable, and see if that works for you. We once lived downstairs from a world-class whistler, and we were kind of sad when he moved out. We also lived downstairs from a shitty electric bass player who liked to practice at 2am. He, we didn't miss so much.

Also, in a densely packed neighborhood, sound could be even more of an issue than in a condo development, so keep that in mind, too.
posted by Rock Steady at 9:27 PM on November 26, 2006

I'm a jazz musician in Portland and I own an older house in an "affordable" neighborhood. I live next to a professional percussionist and hear him practicing congas loud and clear. He's great, so I don't mind. My other neighbor is a pro jazz guitarist. I don't hear him, but I do hear his daughter practicing piano in the summer when the windows are open.

My point is, buying a house may not solve the noise problem. Either way you go, neighbors may hear you and may be annoyed. Buy either one and be prepared to deal with the noise with sound proofing if you annoy someone.
posted by nonmyopicdave at 9:34 PM on November 26, 2006

Growing up with a musician, and living in an apartment complex with one, I would opt for the house. Just because someone isn't making a noise complaint doesn't mean that they don't find it annoying. I'm not saying that everyone will be bothered, but at least with a home, you don't have to worry or wonder. Besides, houses seem to have so much more charm, and those "bad neighborhoods" can actually be a lot more fun, interesting, and sincere. I live in a rundown neighborhood and I wouldn't trade it in for the world.
posted by Holy foxy moxie batman! at 9:36 PM on November 26, 2006

Musicians are among the finest things we have in the world, but NOT when you have to share a wall/ceiling/floor with one. There are going to be some irritated people in your building, but if they don't complain it's because they don't like confrontation and won't know how your husband might react.

I agree with fshgrl, the evening hours are when people are coming home from a stressful day of sharing cubicle walls with annoying officemates. The last thing they want is to hear a horn while they are trying to relax, watch the news, eat dinner, and bond with the family.

I am hyper-conscious about the noise that comes from my place because I really don't want to bother anyone. It's good that you and your and husband actually realize that there are some people who may not relish hearing a talented jazz musician hone his craft every day.

Many actors like to act, but may hate the fame and publicity that comes with it. That's part of being an actor, though. It was a choice they made. Your husband made the choice to pursue a profession that makes it necessary for him to consider the feelings of others when he works. Every job has its pros and cons. Being limited with regard to where he lives is a con when it comes to his job.

Get a house if you can.
posted by HotPatatta at 9:49 PM on November 26, 2006

1-2 hours a day, most days?

If I could hear it, that would drive me completely insane and, yes, I would hate you.

Really, for that kind of practice, I think a house would be a much better bet. Preferably one with sturdy interior walls to block the sound.
posted by madajb at 10:11 PM on November 26, 2006

I appreciate the comments.

Just to clarify: by "bad" neighborhood, I'm not saying I'm worried about crime or anything. We just want access to public transportation and grocery stores, and maybe a couple of walkable places to eat. I love city living.

It sounds like we should definitely rule out any older condo buildings, where sound is more likely to carry. If we fall in love with newer condos, maybe my husband can play his sax in one unit while I listen in another to get a feel for whether the sound travels significantly.

nonmyopicdave: Your neighborhood sounds ideal. What part of town are you in?
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:19 PM on November 26, 2006

I've practiced my oboe in my (solid block) condo for 6 years and have never had a complaint. FWIW, the only noise I ever hear from my neighrbors is water in the pipes and footsteps. Noise dampening is pretty damn good in the place -- my upstairs neighbors have guests over nightly and I seldom hear them.

I try to limit my pratice sessions to hours before 5pm, when my neighbors are most likely to be out. My studio is on the ground floor and in the center of my condo, so it doesn't border any neighbor's walls. If I need to record/do ensemble work, I just go to someone's house or the union hall. I try to be a good neightbor. It's hard when I need to make reeds at 2am -- I just suck it up, do what I can in silence, and wake up early the next day to wrap things up when I'm allowed to make noise again.

I've seen single-person sound booths before (but haven't actually given one a test run). Maybe that would be something different to consider. Another option is to investigate the local music union and see if they have a practice area.
posted by Sangre Azul at 10:31 PM on November 26, 2006

Roughly, 60th and Glisan. We are on the Max line, and next to a Freddies, but don't have a lot of walkable eateries. Just Biddies Irish pub, a tiny greek pizza place, and a Mexican restaurant at which I eat weekly.

In my comment I said our neighborhood was "affordable." The quotes reflect the relative price of homes in this insane market.
posted by nonmyopicdave at 10:44 PM on November 26, 2006

I'm a trombonist. I hate having to practice in my apartment, mostly because everyone sees a trombone, and assumes, "omg, that's that instrument that the guy plays in American Pie - it's really, really, really loud. I hope he doesn't practice near me". Sometimes I use a practice mute, which is less than ideal, and of course they do not work for a saxophone.

So from my anecdotal response: yes, buy a house. Plus, if your husband ever wants to teach some private lessons out of the home, the extra space can be really nice. I'm a student, and practice mostly in the practice rooms at my school, but if I had a small house I would be more inclined to practice there.

(Incidentally, if you happened to be next to me in a condo, I would love hearing jazz licks from 5pm-10pm every night, but I may not be most people).
posted by rossination at 11:13 PM on November 26, 2006

I live in Glasgow, Scotland where most of the older style tenements have walls a foot or so thick. They are really sturdy and are sound proofed against most things. However, in my last place, I had a pianist staying downstairs. At first it was charming, after about three days I hated her. I am not sure my behaviour was strictly rational but then why should it be? It is interfering with other people's lives in a way that people should not need to expect. Hearing someone play music occasionally is one thing, being forced to listen to it every day (often practising the same infuriating bit) is something else. Another thing is that jazz music is as divisive a musical style as any. Some people love it for others its nails down a blackboard thing.

I am sorry if I sound a bit mean but having lived with a musician in close proximity after a short while the bohemian artsy type just becomes the annoying wanker with no consideration for anyone else. I know at least two of my neighbours felt the same way.

I would suggest a house.
posted by ClanvidHorse at 2:00 AM on November 27, 2006

Buy a house. You'll have less interference from the neighborhood conform-or-die society trying to protect their bloody investments in their crappy condos, and you'll have more freedom in soundproofing a practice room so well that no one (including you) will be bothered by your husband's midnight sax blats. Such a room also would let him be freer about when and how he plays.

Maybe get a place with a room the right size plus a little more, then build a room within a room, with sound insulation separating them, and two sound-insulated doors separating that room from the rest of the house. A place with a large basement would be cool, especially if the basement had a (soundproofed) door directly to the outside, which would make the practice space better for an entire band (if he forms or joins one) and maybe even rentable to other people who need a practice space.

Also, a room good for loud sax can also be good for loud sex.
posted by pracowity at 2:05 AM on November 27, 2006

Sad as I am to say it, I think that if the sound of the saxaphone travels to other apartments, you will probably get complaints.

This is one of the facets of society/people that I just do not get. Why are people so incensed by the sound of others pursuing their interests? Can't sleep because of the saxophonist? Get some earplugs or put on some soothing music to lull you to sleep and block the noise.
posted by pollystark at 3:29 AM on November 27, 2006

Some observations from my family: I play the drums, while my younger brother plays the saxophone. I don't play with practice silencer pads, but with my bedroom door and window shut, the noise doesn't travel through the house very much. I find that you can hear the bass and snare a little. On the other hand, for some reason, even with his windows and door closed, the sax comes through the house fairly solidly. I'm not sure why this happens. Basically, if you personally would have a problem with someone bashing on a drum kit for a couple of hours each day in a condo setting, go for a house.
posted by cholly at 3:30 AM on November 27, 2006

While this first part is somewhat unrelated to the direct question about music/noise, it's still relevant to the spirit of your whole question:

If you have or are planning to have a dog sometime in the future (or kids, for that matter), perhaps that would be another factor that influences you toward a house. A houes with a fenced in yard is heaven for a dog - a condo is usually not (though there are some breeds that do just fine).

As for the music part:

Don't live somewhere you don't want to live, though. If you want a condo in a nicer neighborhood, just make sure that the walls are nice and thick, and that he keeps to certain hours that won't bother people. While there may be some who get annoyed by someone practicing, musicians practicing is a reality of life. By living in a condo, just like living in an apartment, the other residents are choosing to share close quarters with other people and therefore hear their noise occasionally. As long as it isn't totally out of hand loud or at a late hour keeping people awake, they have no real grounds to complain.

He'll just have to be polite about the noise if someone complains and maybe practice with a mute, offer to practice different hours, or maybe move to a different room in your condo. If that's not enough, then the problem is your new neighbor, not your choice to live in a condo.

Best of luck whichever you choose!
posted by twiggy at 5:08 AM on November 27, 2006

I think that saxophone playing does fall under "loud music" and that "some noise is to be expected" means that sometimes neighbours will have a party, babies will cry at night and in general, it is irrational to assume complete quietness in a condo.
posted by davar at 5:14 AM on November 27, 2006

If you're going to live in a condo, you should absolutely meet the neighbors who share walls/floors/ceiling with the practice room and talk to them about it so as to set up reasonable expectations and responses. Then I would see about sound-insulating the shared walls as best you can. A heavy carpet and drapes are a good start, but you might consider making the room look/feel more like a recording studio (fire-proof egg-foam, etc).

I play trumpet and found it hard to practice and keep the peace. I used practice mutes when the sun went down as a general rule, but I've yet to see a viable practice rig for a sax. For the most part, I tried to keep open communication and to be considerate.

A house is definitely easier to hide in.
posted by plinth at 5:19 AM on November 27, 2006

A woman I know who just bought a condo asked to have someone stomp around the condo above hers to see how much she could hear, before she signed the purchase and sales agreement. If you do find a condo you dig, maybe you could do something similar with the saxophone.

I live in a condo in a brick building built in the 1950s and I can hear the woman across the hall talking in her kitchen and the guy upstairs watch tv. When I lived in a building built in the 1920s I never heard one thing, barely even footsteps. So it definitely depends on the construction.
posted by jdl at 5:44 AM on November 27, 2006

1--2 hours every day right when people are trying to eat dinner and talk to each other and relax = everyone hates you. This will be especially true for saxophones, which seem to have only one volume level: apocalyptically wake-the-dead loud. A sax counts as a very loud stereo, not as a normal noise you might have to expect to hear occasionally. Likewise, every day for two hours is pretty fucking far from "occasionally."

All of this is triply true for practice, which probably means playing scales or whatnot and/or playing the same damn piece over and over and over instead of playing a variety of tunes that people might actually enjoy hearing.

It sounds like we should definitely rule out any older condo buildings, where sound is more likely to carry.

I think you have this backwards. Old buildings are likely to have solid walls, while newer ones might be just sheetrock over steel studs with lots of lovely air spaces to resonate with every note.

He'd make a lot more friends if he took time at lunch to come home and practice while most people are at work, or if you just got a cheaper condo and rented some shared studio space somewhere else.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:37 AM on November 27, 2006

There are probably a pile of threads on here outlining why, in general, a house is often a better bet than a condo (whether you're noisy or not) but I think musicians just do better in a house....I am a sax player, and frankly, just the thought that I could be disturbing someone distracts the crap out of me when i practice. I'll be playing through something, then I 'll think I heard a knock, or a neighbor angrily banging on a wall or floor, and I'll lose my concentration, stop to listen and realize it's nothing, then repeat the process 15 minutes later. Or, if you do get a complaint, or a neighbor that comes knocking, then how can you really practice after that, knowing that at any moment another complaint could be on the way. And I know one post said the sax is loud all the time, but of course most sax players know dynamics are key to a sax like. I don't want to always play very quietly if I"m practicing. I want to play loud when it's time to play loud, and very very loud when appropriate, and quiet when it's supposed to be quiet. Stiffling dynamics and volume for fear of complaints is no way to practice effectively.

These points aside, I think musicians just do better in houses. Say another player wants to come over to work on a part and bring his guitar, or congas or whatever, you can do that in a house, not in a condo as much.

If you insist on the condo option, I'd approach the board directly and describe what you're intending to do, and get some sort of written permission that it's OK before buying. Think of how detrimental it would be to not be able to practice!

I recently purchased a house in an "OK" neighborhood, though one that many of my peers wouldn't live in. After a few weeks I feel much happier than I think I would have if i purchased a condo, and I always know i can play my sax or my stereo as loud as I want to....
posted by Salvatorparadise at 8:43 AM on November 27, 2006

Well, I don't get to use one of those stupid IANA abbreviations.

I am a saxophonist. I've also lived or practiced in (depending on the girlfriend) houses, attached houses and apartments equivalent to the type of condo you describe.

Your husband is going to royally piss off your neighbours in a condo because the saxophone is impossible to practice pianissimo at all times. The sound carries through any material, including cinder blocks and reinforced concrete. I don't know why, but it does.

I've never met a muting product for a saxophone which works. The construction of the saxophone with open keys all along the tube and the necessity for having the bell mostly open to produce the right intonation and even pitch pretty much mean the saxophone is going to be depressing to play and your neighbours are still going to be angry with you.

Your best realistic bet is to purchase a house, as someone above said. Depending on where he is in the house and how it's constructed, he can probably be heard on the street, but generally won't be heard in your neighbours' homes.

Depending on the condo (and here I'm really guessing) you may be able to do some remodeling. In this case a study with a soundproofed practice booth in it may be possible, but I don't think that's likely and will add a few grand to your investment.

Now, you live in Portland, Oregon. Portland's an art town with a vibrant music scene, so I would imagine there may be co-ops and condos catering specifically to musicians. I'm not sure what this would do to your sanity, but I would suggest looking around for one.

Barring any of this, there are a ton of colleges and universities in the area. Your husband may be able to get permission to use practice rooms at one, or take a continuing ed class of interest to him in order to get access to the practice rooms. Or, best of all, offer lessons as an adjunct professor with a university, earn some money on the side, and get access to a practice space that way.
posted by Captaintripps at 10:03 AM on November 27, 2006

Update, a year later: We bought a condo, and it turns out our elderly next-door neighbor claims she that can't hear anything with the windows closed and that she really likes jazz anyways and doesn't mind. So yay!
posted by croutonsupafreak at 2:42 PM on November 9, 2007

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