One of my better ideas has been to sing regularly with earplugs in for vocal health and hearing protection. At first, I found it was a great way to tell whether I was singing through my nose or not. The sound – when your ears are covered – is very distinct within your head.
Since then, I’ve found that it’s worthwhile at nearly all stages of singing. There’s something about it that’s very freeing. A common danger for singers is to listen to themselves too closely and try and modify the sound itself, rather than the production. This is foolish partially because we can’t hear ourselves very well, even without earplugs. This is why our voice seems so strange to us on recordings. We almost never hear what other people hear, and since even recordings are lies in their own way, we will never really hear what other people hear.
Wearing earplugs takes us to the other extreme, where hearing ourselves is reduced mostly to pitch and cleanliness of tone. With earplugs, it’s quite easy to hear the pitch you’re singing and how cleanly the vocal folds are coming together. From there, it’s much easier to focus on process without worrying about the resultant sound too much. Trust the process, and the sound will likely be fine.
In a chorus setting, this is especially valuable. During my first university chorus experiences, I found that I’d tire myself constantly when singing next to other singers. My best guess was that I was trying to hear myself, but since my mouth was in front of my face, and my ears and the voices around me were off to the side, it became an impossible task. And if everyone is doing this, then it becomes a kind of vocal arms race, where everyone sings more loudly than necessary just to hear themselves.
Secondly, choruses are loud. Sitting in a room with 40 other opera singers can be injurious to the ears, so I like wearing earplugs to protect myself. In my early 20’s, I loved playing in rock bands, and it took me too long to get the religion about protecting my ears. I’m paying for that now, and I’m trying to at least halt some of the damage I’ve already done, though I’ve said bon voyage to frequencies above 16 or 17 kHz.
My brand of choice is Etymotic. Their earplugs can be carried in a little pouch on a keychain, and they’re designed to reduce the volume of sound reaching your ears while letting the sound retain its character. Wearing other earplugs tends to deaden everything, but with these Ety Plugs, it sounds quite normal. Just not as loud.
If you try this, then I’ll warn you: it’s weird at first. You might feel a strong disassociation with everything happening around you. I suggest that you keep at it. It will feel normal, and your ears, and possibly your voice, will thank you.