CHICAGO — Somewhere above an Evanston parking garage, there’s the steady trickle of music.
Until, after a few minutes of overture, at last, silence.
The parking garage goes still.
A moment later, the sound of trombone fills the space.
Followed by tuba.
Together, they reverberate, leisurely, deep, lumbering, like Godzilla emerging out of the nearby lake. Timothy Maines on tenor trumpet. Alec Rich on tuba. They stand beside their cars in the basement of the parking garage, their music carrying out of the structure, across the jogging trail circling the campus, across the sailing center, across an inlet of water, onto the beaches. Heads lift off blankets. Necks crane. Is that brass? A jogger stops outside the garage and crouches down to peek into the dim basement level. He spots the small horn section and yelps: “You sound great!”
“Thanks!” shouts Maines.
Rich puts his tuba down on the towel that he spread on the garage floor and swigs at his water bottle. Maines cradles his trombone and flips the sheet music on the stand before him. They play down here from time to time, sometimes solo, sometimes in duos or trios. You know, Rich says to Maines, nodding at the sheet music, the guy who wrote this, in the 1970s, he wrote music for a lot of porn films. “You would always see his name in the credits.”
I’m sitting nearby on a curb and I can’t let this pass without comment. “Who watches the credits of old porn films?” I ask.
“Tuba players,” Rich says.
“OK, now a medium bounce?” Maines asks, eager to continue.
“OK,” Rich says, and they begin again.
A stone’s throw away, the imposing building for the Northwestern Bienen School of Music stands cold and jutting, like a glass-windowed cruise ship taking up too much space in a quaint harbor. It holds studios, practice rooms, concert halls. And yet, since the pandemic, for many of the music students here, the real place to practice has been outside, in the nearby parking garages on campus.
The first time I heard music from a garage was just after lockdown, March 2020. I was walking in early morning and heard the moan of a bow on strings. It was coming from the South Garage. For much of last year, its gates were up. You could drive in and out freely, so I drove in and wound up, and up, and up, and somewhere around the third level, in the otherwise empty garage, I saw the source: a student on a stool beside her car, playing a cello. I continued upward, and on the next floor, a trumpet player. They were playing on different floors to avoiding stepping on each other’s toes.
Once I heard them coming from the garages, it seemed I heard it every day.
As weather got colder, their scales, flourishes, strings and sudden blasts of French horn came less frequently. And yet it also never quite ended. On and off, if you hit it right, practices continued, coming out of the parking garage beside the visitor’s center and the basement garage alongside the journalism school. It was far from unique, of course: Last year, across the country, as concert halls and indoor spaces closed, school choirs and garage bands and city symphonies met inside parking garages. (Not to mention, musicians have never needed a pandemic as an excuse to play outdoors.)
Still, finding yourself an impromptu audience to an impromptu concert is a little like seeing a buck standing beside the road: It’s not remarkable, but you can’t help but slow down and admire. Here, indeed, is one of the lovelier byproducts of the pandemic. Even better, even as the health crisis in this country winds down, even with universities on break, garage practicing is a modest gift that keeps giving.