In the neighborhood where I live, there are a lot of music students - and one thing music students do is practice their instruments. So every day when I come home from work, I am usually treated to some sort of concert.
One evening, as I was relaxing in my easy chair after a long day, I heard a clarinet. It wasn't loud, or dissonant, or disturbing. In fact, it seemed to enter the air right on cue. The performer, whoever he or she was, seemed to be improvising a soft, slow melody.
In a while, my serenader began playing some more complicated, more upbeat, jazz tunes. This was no floundering beginner. Each piece moved smoothly into the next, and yet nothing sounded rehearsed or planned. It was more like a conversation - as natural and spontaneous as talking to a best friend.
When the music finally stopped, after a half-hour or so, I at first felt a pang, but then the silence too seemed to have its own rhythm, enriched by the clarinet player's contribution. I felt refreshed, companioned by the music.
My favorite musician, though, was a young trumpet player. When I first moved into my apartment, I would often hear this young man (as I imagined) struggling with what gradually became recognizable as the opening bars of Ravel's ''Bolero.'' Over and over he played the notes, slowly, painstakingly, sometimes correcting himself, other times bogging down in a confusion of sounds. But he always kept on going.
I'm not sure if my schedule changed back then, or if I gradually phased out some of the background noises of the neighborhood, but after a while I no longer heard the ''young man'' practicing. Then one spring day a full-fledged rendition of ''Bolero'' floated in through the open windows. Gone were the falterings and retakes; this was music, played with style, grace, confidence.
I smiled, almost broke into applause. It was as if I too had been practicing all those long months, and here at last was my reward.
Living alone over the past year, without family or roommates, has taken some getting used to.
But often at those moments when everything seemed dark and lonely - when I realized I'd just spent a whole day or evening without talking to a single person, and the hum of the refrigerator was growing inordinately loud - I'd be picked up out of the doldrums by an impromptu concert from one of my neighbors. Or made to laugh (not too hard) at some passerby's rendition of our resident vocalist's warmup scales. Perhaps he'd never heard how all that practicing paid off in one of the rich, full arias this woman sometimes sings.
Then of course there has been the music of everyday living. The little girl across the back alley who calls out ''Have a good day, Daddy!'' as her father leaves for work. And the little boy who protested to his friend, ''I'm not going to ride bikes with you if you wear those dumb-looking shoes!'' ''I'll change them,'' his friend coaxed. People clambering up and down the stairs, car doors slamming, friends joking as they walk down the street - all are signs of life, of community, my community.
So, although I may be the sole occupant of my apartment, I really don't live alone. And when my downstairs neighbor turns up his stereo so loud I feel the music vibrating through my shoes, I momentarily think of the neighbor on the other side of me, whose delicate harp-playing I sometimes hear through the brick wall - soft, ethereal, enchanting. It all balances out, I decide, as I head downstairs to ask for a little lighter on the bass, please.