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Hearing Yourself Sing -- Chapter 5

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Well, it took us more than a year to raise our baby into the handsome young product it is today, but even as a baby HearFones raised eyebrows. Professor Robert Russell, director of the Choral Arts Society, held them in his hands and quipped O Sole Mio, then popped them over his ears and sang again -- Wow! he said, you've really got something here.

Soprano Karen Notare offered to try them in her rehearsal as Tosca -- together with Sunil, our photogenic young model -- but she decided her beautiful operatic voice was a bit strong to use them much. On a more serious note, though, a young girl in New Hampshire with language development difficulties found her HearFones really helpful, walking around the house making different sounds and really listening. Her mom sent us a lovely Thank You card.

Then, Rhode Island teacher Jolie Shushansky sent us self-portraits from her 24 second-graders, annotated by each artist with their individual impressions of using HearFones, and a note: "I'm using my HearFones as a singer, teacher and chorus director to help discipline the children, who habitually call out without raising their hand, to help them hear what they sound like. The results have been fantastic."

We began to understand that HearFones were more than just a learning tool, and their encouragement -- among many others -- helped us press forward. Our first sales were to the Music Stand catalog in March 1998, and we haven't looked back since.

But, we still wondered, What . . . is going on here?

First, we know that HearFones were designed around the ellipse -- a special shape of curve known for its two focal points. The ellipse was chosen because any sound that starts out at the first focal point spreads out into the curve and then reflects back to arrive exactly together at the second focal point. (If you're the curious type, there's a simple picture of this on the Web at:

(For the more technically minded, you can study our patent at the U.S. Patent Office site:

Our patent number is 6,229,901.)

The idea is to take every sound coming from your mouth and re-create it at your ear, rather than letting it escape and never return. It works great! So well that some folks are using it to study and control their own breathing! And drive around in their car singing to themselves!

But what are HearFones users hearing, and what are they doing with what they hear? And more than that, what are they learning?

At first glance, it seems obvious that “hearing yourself better” should be helpful with hitting the right pitch correctly. If you can't hear yourself at all, then how would you know?

You could have a meter of some sort, or an oscillscope, that measures and presents your pitch on an indicator. Then you could play around and see what works to make it go higher and lower. Or you could have a friend or a coach to tell you what to do.

Luckily, most of us can hear ourselves at least in some ordinary way, so we don't really need HearFones or a coach to start singing. But not all of us have perfect hearing (whatever that is), and so we might not be able to match a pitch we're creating with the pitch we're trying to hit. This is usually what folks mean when they speak of tone deafness.

Others have high-frequency hearing deficits, caused by aging or by exposure to loud noises at work or play -- or guns or jet engines -- or DNA. So, the extra information HearFones provide can be helpful anyway.

But more than that, the ability to sing on pitch means that we need to be able to accurately change pitch as the melody moves along. This calls for being able to pre-set our voice for each pitch exactly at the moment it's needed.

You can hear this problem especially in a young children's choir, where sometimes it takes longer than a full note for them to agree on what pitch to sing. Alone, in the back seat of a car, they sing just fine, but in the confusion of a group of singers, their lack of training and confidence shines through as a muddle of pitches.

Any number of day-care centers and junior choirs have discovered what their kids can really do when they can hear themself singing with HearFones on. It's like day and night.

Being able to hit pitch accurately, and being able to change pitch accurately and instantly, is a learned art. It needs to be internalized and stored away as what some would call a muscle memory so that it's available on call, so to speak.

Muscle memories, of course, are what pianists and violinists use to move their fingers as quickly as they do. By practicing fingering, over and over and over, they create what a computer programmer would call a sub-routine -- a snippet of programming that accomplishes a specific goal, like display the lowercase letter p.

All you do is push your finger on the P key, and the computer does the rest.

These subroutines apply equally in tennis, and in golf, where your muscles pull off a success without any deep thinking at all. In fact, there's a series of books titled The Inner Game of ( _ _ _ ) by Timothy Galwey that includes The Inner Game of Music and goes into significant detail about how muscle learning takes place. And takes over, too, for that matter: just think DO-RE-MI, and out comes DO-RE-MI

The Inner Game series takes for granted what we call feedback. And feedback is just what HearFones do.

You wind up to hit the ball, and you hit it, and you see where it goes, and if it goes wrong, you try again. When it goes well, you practice that again and again until it becomes instinctive. With time, and practice, you get better and better, and making a mistake happens less and less often.

Of course, in a real game, a lot depends on how the ball arives to you. Does it have spin? Which way? What do I need to do to compensate for that when I hit it back? So, effective practice demands playing as well as exercising. After you become Serena or Venus Williams, your focus is on the incoming ball, and your response is intuitive -- and immediate.

Here, a solo singer has an advantage, but a chorister does not. As part of a team, you need to act together, following the director's directions, listening to the choir around you and to the accompanist if you have one, and trying to avoid being sucked in by the voices around you if any one of them makes their own mistake.

For an adult, this can be a trial; for a child, it can be daunting!

Imagine trying to learn without feedback, or even with just partial feedback:

  • - you toss the ball into the air
  • - you look at the target
  • - you swing the racket
  • - you hit the ball (if you're lucky)
  • - the ball flies away, and hits a little low, but your nearsightedness causes you to lose focus at that distance and you just hear it hit the wall
  • - would you bother to try again?

Now, imagine learning with coached feedback:

  • - you perform the same steps (1 through 5)
  • - your coach informs you that you were a little low and a little to the left
  • - you try again
  • - this time you're a little low again, but on the right.

Or, in singing:

  • - you sing into a microphone
  • - you play back the recording
  • - you change what you're doing
  • - you try again.

Vocal teacher Katherine Verdolini Abbott has been studying this at the University of Pittsburgh for years, and this year's Voice Foundation conference included any number of researchers reporting what she's said for years: giving a person instructions is the best way to NOT effect muscle memory.

You need immediate, pertinent, relevant, meaningful feedback -- to literally see how it goes -- in order to effectively teach muscle memories.

A pianist sprinkles her fingers across the keyboard and immediately goes Ouch! That's not right! No one needs to tell her anything. The violinist plays an arpeggio and says No! I've got to do that again; that F didn't come out sharp enough!

The singer sings a phrase, but her voice flies away and she only hears partially what she's doing -- after it reflects off the other wall, and the ceiling, and reverberates through the air around her.

Now, imagine learning with accurate, immediate and meaningful feedback:

  • - you perform steps 1-5 again
  • - with eyeglass binoculars you track the ball as it spins and arcs away
  • - you study its behavior, all the way to the target
  • - you see where it hits
  • - and now you try again.

Soccer players do this -- routinely. They kick the ball, and they watch it spin and arc around in its inevitable curve as it first eases away from the goal, but then gracefully curves back to squeeze between the keeper's glove and the far corner of the net. Bend it, like Beckham!

Kids do it -- when they casually skip a flat rock across a tranquil pond.

In our Chapter 6, we'll focus on the details.


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