Got a reader question a few days ago after reading my article “Singing with Earplugs”:
The main challenge I find with singing with ear plugs is knowing how to regulate the loudness of my own voice. Since I don’t have the normal feedback sound level, it’s difficult for me to know if I’m singing too loudly or too softly.
How do you overcome this problem?
I’ll respond with a couple tips, but a lot of the answer has to do with patience and changing your priorities.
Our Hearing is Imperfect
First, we aren’t great at determining how loud we are even without earplugs. Ever get asked why you’re being so loud or why you’re speaking so quietly and been surprised? I think we’ve all also experienced other people who were inappropriately loud or quiet and who seemed unaware of it. That can happen with or without earplugs because the mouth’s position relative to our ears prevents us from getting a totally clear idea of the relative volume of our voice to others’.
We’re hearing some combination of a voice coming from the throat and mouth and arriving at our ears from inside our own head and the sound from our mouths on the outside of our ears and the reflections of our own voice from acoustically reflective structures. We don’t hear our own voice the same way others hear it, and we never will, and we have to trust that we’ve picked up enough cues and good habits to be using our voice at an appropriate volume.
On top of that are personal vocal biases that encourage certain vocal behavior. Maybe there’s some intention to show off, so you tend to be louder to get attention. Maybe you’re shy and uncertain of yourself, so you tend to hide vocally. Maybe you vacillate between the two. Either one, however, is an extra-musical bias that needs to be internally combatted to find the ideal dynamic level.
So what’s different when we wear earplugs that adds to the above challenges?
- Our own timbre and perceived loudness are different. Our perception of our own voice is tilted much more towards the voice coming from inside our own head rather than reflections of our voice from the outside world. It feels more cut off from the other voices and has a very different timbre than the other voices. We also feel relatively loud compared to the voices around us.
- The experience is unusual. The normal cues we have to determine appropriate volume are distorted because we’re just not used to experiencing the world like this.
- The overall volume of the outside world is reduced. Low volume cues can be totally missed while wearing earplugs. If you’re wearing earplugs that aren’t meant for musicians, then the timbral character can also be changed significantly.
All of these are disorienting if you’re not used to them. So what to do?
The simplest solution is to use your earplugs more often. There’s no replacement for simply practicing more often with them. And I mean that seriously: don’t just use the earplugs in noisy group rehearsals, but use them when you’re practicing alone even if you’re not at risk of hurting your own ears.
You have to let yourself get used to them, and that may mean you might sing a bit too loudly or softly sometimes. But that’s what rehearsals are for. You’re practicing. Let yourself make mistakes and adjust from there. Eventually, your ears and brain will figure the new paradigm out.
Alternate With and Without
I like changing modes quickly to trick myself into learning new things. For example, the open mouth hum from Richard Miller is one of my favorite exercises. That’s where you cover your mouth with your hand, sing up to a high note, and then after you’ve begun singing the note you remove the hand.
Do the same with earplugs. Begin singing with them, then remove them in the middle of a phrase, then add them back, and then repeat. You’ll begin getting a good sense of what your voice sounds like both with and without. You can do this alone or in rehearsal. Just try to do it subtly, so you don’t disrupt anyone else’s work process.
You don’t necessarily have to use earplugs for this. Just cover your ears with your hands, and alternate on and off as you sing.
Pay Attention Better
Your pre-earplugs level of attention won’t cut it. You have to up your game or you’ll miss too much. Even through the earplugs, you’ll be able to get a lot of information, but only if you actively work at it.
Since you’re hearing less, you have to give more attention to what you’re hearing. Can you hear your neighbor’s voice? What does their timbre tell you about their vocal intensity? If the conductor speaks, can you hear what they’re saying? Can you hear the piano/orchestra?
Likewise, pay more attention to yourself. Do you feel like you’re really working hard to sing? Do you feel like you’re pushing? Do you feel like you’re singing without energy? Does your energy match the singers around you?
Which leads me to the next point…
Sing By Feeling
You have to learn to sing in a way where your primary reference is how it feels rather than how it sounds. Low-effort low volume singing feels a certain way, and you don’t need your ears to know it. Excessively loud pushed singing also feels a certain way, and you don’t need to hear it to feel it.
Even if you’re not singing with earplugs, if you sing long enough, you’ll be faced with weird acoustic situations. If you’re dependent on the sound of your own voice, you will constantly be frustrated and blame your troubles on the “bad acoustic” or “dead space” or the “weird costume” (hats and hoods are notorious for messing with how you hear yourself). But singing primarily by feeling applies to every acoustic situation.
Get Away From Extremes
At some point, you get an idea of how softly you can sing and how loudly, and your singing will be and should be far away from either extreme.
Find that middle ground and move to and away from that point in line with the musical demands. Think of giving around 60% of your max volume as the default mezzo forte dynamic. Then 55% for piano and 40% for pianissimo. 70% for forte and 80% for fortissimo.
You basically never want to approach 100% in terms of volume unless you’re going for an effect, and if you’re singing in an ensemble, you probably shouldn’t be going for that effect.
Focus on the Ensemble
There’s more to blending as an ensemble than just how loud you are relative to the others. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Is our diction clear and unified?
- Are our phrases moving together?
- Do our vowels match?
- Are we attacking the pitch cleanly without sliding or other undesirable vocal effects?
- Are we responding to the conductor dynamically?
- Tuning? Rhythm? I’d argue that getting the rhythm wrong is a much bigger danger of singing with earplugs than being too loud just because you can drop your attention for a few seconds and not realize you’ve gone off into your own rhythm-world.
There are a lot of ways to draw unwanted attention to yourself well before you sing too loudly or softly. If you’re really paying attention to the ensemble and getting all those other things right, it’s really unlikely that your personal loudness is by itself going to be a problem.
Be Patient with Yourself
If you combine everything above, you’ll be paying a lot of attention in rehearsal. You’ll be listening to your colleagues carefully through the reduced loudness of the earplugs. You’ll be following the conductor’s movements and her or his words very closely. You’ll be paying attention to how your singing feels. You’ll be paying attention to all the things that make an ensemble sound unified. You’ll have found a healthy standard loudness that’s neither too soft nor too loud, and you’ll reference your other dynamic levels to that point. You’ll never sing with 100% volume or near-0% energy.
The earplugs will make you feel a bit isolated, and it’s a scary place to be at first, but with patience, you’ll adapt to them and enjoy the benefits that I believe regular singing with earplugs can bestow.