The vocal environment – acoustics

The performing space, the ear, and the feedback – the acoustic experience can theoretically be considered on its own, but is tied closely to the psychological.

Experienced singers agree that different rooms give us different feelings about our singing. For example, an isolation booth in a recording studio can be a very disconcerting place in which to sing, at first. The relatively “dead” acoustical space can tempt us to try too hard and strain ourselves.

A reverberant space invites us to both make sound and listen to ourselves simultaneously, as we mix the bouncing sound waves with the new ones streaming out of our mouths. Such a space amplifies us, so different from a dead space which just takes from us, and gives us nothing to blend with. Finding reverberation or echoes in unusual places tends to delight us. Stairways, bathrooms, tunnels, caves, auditoriums, and basketball courts are examples of places where it is fun to let loose vocally and see what comes back at us.

The physical distance from our listeners has both acoustic and psychological considerations. We usually like a certain minimum distance from the audience in order to feel more free and less distracted, and we often believe that a little more space sounds better than extremely close. Spacial distance usually goes hand-in-hand with psychological distance. It is common in a less formal performance situation for the performer to start on stage with a set distance to the nearest audience member, and come closer to the audience, or allow the audience to come closer, as the performance progresses. This is congruent with the rise in rapport and comfort level as time goes on.

Hearing ourselves in the same practice environment all the time can make performing more of a shock. Practicing in different places makes adapting to a new performance space easier. Some singers fall into the trap of doing a lot of singing in very reverberant places most of the time, and then freaking out in dryer acoustics where their voices seem smaller and they can hear flaws that were masked by reverb or echoes.

At the NATS conference this year, Dr. Lynn Helding had a very informative session on the different kinds of hearing a singer experiences, and how the listener has yet another kind of hearing, and how all of that needs reconciling in a voice lesson or coaching. The singer hears themselves through tissue vibrating in the skull, the direct sound waves radiating to the ear, and from sound waves that are bouncing off the surfaces of the performing space. The listener also has the last two of those three, but it’s obviously a whole different experience due to their own center of consciousness and interpretation of the singing. We could argue that with a microphone and monitor, there are two kinds of sounds coming back at us from “the room” – the monitor giving us mostly our own singing, and the general feedback of all of the sounds of the space, which may or may not include hearing ourselves.

Other acoustical situations that we could consider are performing in groups with singers or instruments, air conditioning, traffic, electrical appliances, and noisy audience members. Which sounds do we tune into and which do we ignore?

I need to mention one particular type of performance – the audition. Very often, an auditionee will not know the room in which they will be singing, and the room is often quite different from a typical performance space. Sometimes a classical singer will be in a carpeted conference room, or a musical theatre singer will be in a very live dance studio with no mic, or sound will be bleeding like crazy from other audition rooms, or the room is huge or tiny, or the piano is out of tune. I had an audition for graduate school that was with three professors in a conservatory practice room, while one of my students recently auditioned on the stage of a 1,000 seat performing hall for his undergraduate program. Some hilarious and tragic experiences have taught me to practice the audition in every kind of room and for various sets of people.

Because we make sound, we must work with the sound environment in which we find ourselves. The acoustics of each situation can change how we sing, for better or worse.

2 Replies to “The vocal environment – acoustics”

  1. I like this post very much, and would like to mention that the old school—as I understand it—concerned itself with what stayed the same throughout the different environments you describe. They called it voice placement—a highly controversial subject.

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