The Practice Room Crisis: A Response

Zlatomir Fung responds to Joseph Peterson’s March 15th opinion piece “Where TF Are The Practice Rooms?” and provides his own solution to the ever increasing practice room issue at The Juilliard School.

Sometime last semester, my string quartet was cramming a last-minute rehearsal in room 424, one of the larger individual piano practice rooms at Juilliard. One of our members left to go to the bathroom, returned, and we got back to work. After about 15 minutes, a knock sounded at our door, and we dropped our heads in resignation, sensing the misfortune which then befell us: a fellow student had reserved our room through the kiosk system, and was prepared to claim it. We had failed to lock it, thereby renouncing our privilege to occupy it.

We tried to reason with the pianist, arguing that, being a quartet, we ought to have a notch more amnesty, but she continued to apologize with that falling, drawn-out “sorry.” She pitied us, but not more than she wanted to practice. After all, it was our mistake; if we really needed the room, we would have locked it. And so we trudged out and attempted a half-hearted rehearsal in the fourth floor hallways without our instruments, since it was 4:30 PM on a Wednesday afternoon, and there was little hope that we might find a room large enough to accommodate us.

The practice room crisis is a vast epidemic at our school. It has woefully fomented this ‘eat-or-be-eaten’ culture of practicing at Juilliard. I am grateful that Joseph Peterson, the author of the editorial to which this piece responds, had the courage to initiate a much-needed dialogue on this topic, for it is undoubtedly a grim reality affecting a large portion of the student body.

There are 95 practice rooms in the school, the majority of which have pianos. (For now, I leave the two dozen practice rooms in the Juilliard dorms aside.) Of the some 900 students in the school in all divisions, we can assume that at least 650-700 of them use the practice rooms regularly. Naturally, it would be ideal for each student to have their own individual practice room, always vacant when needed. The actual situation is far from that, and as it stands, the math is ghastly.

This brings us to a core philosophical question: does Juilliard, as an educational institution, owe practice rooms to its students? Some would argue it falls under the umbrella of the “artistic education” cited in the school’s mission statement, and most of us would consider practicing even more essential to our improvement than our private lessons.

I am sympathetic toward those who believe that our tuition costs entitle us to practice rooms. At the same time, I do not find it productive to reason solely from a position of entitlement. There are many positive changes that we can make without blaming the whole system for a single manifest failure.

The analysis of Juilliard practice rooms differs from, for example, corporate conference room booking, because of the highly personal, variable nature of practice schedules. Say that you believed that class schedules at Juilliard are structured unfavorably towards practice room availability. Your argument is as such: a large majority of classes are Tuesday-Friday morning or early afternoon for orchestral instrumentalists, thus priming the school for a dense wave of congestion on Tuesday afternoon. Yet, at 9 AM on Tuesday morning, there are plenty of rooms available because so many people are attending classes.

This argument becomes tricky, however, when you recognize that there is no guarantee this solves the issue at all, because even if those who are currently attending class at 9 AM were to attend at a different time (say, late afternoon on Tuesday), they might not want to practice in the morning. Perhaps it’s the case that most people enjoy practicing in the mid-to-late afternoon on weekdays.

It’s challenging to know what the underlying mathematical issue actually is. All observable patterns are subject to variance, so changes might only be verified through trial-and-error. This fact is a concession, but a necessary one. Given this, I now modestly present five suggestions for how we can modify our practice room system and culture, in order of feasibility:

1. Convert classrooms into kiosked practice rooms.​ This includes classrooms on the 2nd and 5th floors (e.g. 560A, 223A, etc. as well as the keyboard rooms of 500F and such), which are often unoccupied during the evening. Some of these rooms are premium rooms, currently occupied through the ASIMUT booking system. However, having them kiosked would make them more readily accessible. The kiosks would be in effect outside the hours of daytime teaching and the Evening Division courses, which means they would still be largely unavailable during the afternoon peak hours.

2. Create a virtual waitlist system.​ This would work when there are no rooms available and several different people looking for a room. A swipe at a kiosk will express your intent to practice, and you will be placed in a virtual queue and notified via text when a practice room has opened for you. Pianists will only be given piano rooms, and other instrumentalists will be given anything available. If you fail to occupy a room within five minutes of being awarded it, the room will be given to the next person in the queue. The current system of by-hand reservation will remain in place when there are multiple rooms available, quickly giving the user an idea of the different options. This way, no one will have to swipe incessantly at the kiosks, and there will be no competition. It will be a fair, productive system. Someone might even be able to write an algorithm based on observed practice habits and queue length to estimate the wait times for prospective practicers.

3. Fix the culture of abandoning practice rooms without releasing them immediately.​ I wager that the implementation of this would do more for practice room congestion than any other modification to the system. So often we leave practice rooms and forget to release them. These 15 minute increments of wasted time add up quickly to hours of practice space wasted each day. Part of the issue is that the “double-swipe” system of releasing a room is unintuitive. It is up to us as students to recognize that this facet of the large issue is our responsibility.

4. Vacate one floor in the dormitory and use it for practice rooms​. One floor in the Juilliard dormitory is 20 new practice rooms for non-pianists. This is about as close as we might get to Peterson’s first suggestion. Perhaps with the installation of some curtains, the noise levels would be small enough for this to become a real possibility. Obstacles remain, such as how one would go about integrating the main-building kiosks with these rooms- not to mention the financial implications.

Now I’d like to propose a more complex fifth option:

5. Create an advance booking system​. Any functional, communal practice room system must be based upon equity. This is the idea that each person who practices ought to be allocated the same amount of time to practice as each other person, within a given temporal range. Currently, we are faced with an inequitable arrangement, where certain people may occupy a practice room for hours at a time during the most highly trafficked time periods in the day, robbing colleagues of their equity.

To help relieve this, I propose that 35 of the 95 practice rooms be separated from the kiosks to be electronically booked in advance, through ASIMUT. No room can be booked for longer than two hours, and no single individual can book for more than 14 hours a week, or two hours a day. Practice rooms can be booked up to 24 hours in advance from the time when you wish to practice, except for chamber rehearsals, which can be booked 36 hours in advance with the approval of all the members. (It is actually more equitable for everyone to have chamber groups rehearsing during peak hours, since multiple individuals are only using a single room.) If someone fails to occupy a room they have booked, then the room will be released as a kiosked room for the duration of their booked session, starting 5 minutes after the booked time frame begins. If someone wishes to end a booking period early, they may release the room as a kiosked room until the next booked session. Each room and booking may be viewed on the Juilliard ASIMUT platform, so there is never a question of an individual’s right to occupy a room at a given time.

This system will, in itself, create a protected 14 hours per week of practice time for nearly 200 individuals, within common practice hours (11 AM-10 PM). This is a favorable ratio. Some might argue that a time limit on bookings creates a value cap on practice time. However, any sort of value cap on practice time must be considered in relation to the fact that, as it stands, many people are being left behind by the system and simply not getting a requisite number of hours in the practice room. Since some will still want to practice more than 2 hours for a given session, the non bookable kiosked rooms will be available for them, creating a healthy balance.

This proposition demands more fleshing out, to be sure. Please suggest changes, or argue against this system; my intention is to create a serious dialogue about the range of possibilities for change. I encourage all readers who are musicians at Juilliard to discuss this important issue whenever possible, and develop your own ideas about where the issues lie, and how we can go about fixing them. Once a united front, we may present ideas to the administration to cure our epidemic.