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Hearing Yourself Sing

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How many times have you heard a person say "Do I really SOUND like that?" when they hear themselves on a recording? Why do we work with coaches or teachers who can tell us what they hear when we sing . . . or speak, for that matter? Why not just use a book?

For those of us who sing into a microphone, how can we ever hear ourselves? Our real voice? Monitor speakers are fine for loud concert settings, but they don't deliver the subtleties of our real voice. They feed us back what the electronic settings and those huge black paper cones send to us. More bass? Just crank it in! . . . There, that's it!

For those of us who dread microphones, for all that they do . . . and for those of us who sing in quartets, or small choirs, or huge choral groups -- how can we work on our own voice, when all we can really hear is the guy next to us, or worse yet, that tenor behind us?

This Web log is going to be a place where we can look into this problem, and where we can share some critical learnings -- physiological, neurological, psychological -- that can work together and help us learn some amazing things about ourselves.

And yes, HearFones are a piece of the puzzle. But far from all of it!

Stay tuned.


And God said, Let us make man . . .

And right from the beginning, there was a basic problem: Man's ears were behind his mouth, and so it began that all mothers needed to say thereafter look them in the eye, when you speak to people.

Our ears are ideally placed for survival in the wilderness, so they can discern the smallest sounds, coming from everywhere around us. But our mouth is ideally placed for eating, and for shouting warnings and for whispering sweet nothings to our friends. It was never supposed to be where our ears could hear it properly.

When we sing -- or actually make any sound at all through our mouth -- that sound projects forward, with only residual amounts of it getting back to our ears. So in the millions of years that we've been singing, there's never been the chance to hear ourselves the same way others do. To sing well. we've always needed someone else to tell us how we're doing, and if they're good at it, they can tell us what we could be doing better.

In a loud crowd, it's all we can do just to know if we're even making a sound at all!

Sounds carry through the air, by making disturbances in the air pressure. Some sounds are just a simple, single snap or bang -- like a firecracker. It's over before it started, and all we might hear afterward is an echo or two. Other sounds are maintained for a while, like the reverberant sound of striking a bell, or the hum of an electric motor. Some sounds have a pitch, so we say that's aн E-flat. Some sounds have complexity, so we can tell an "EE" from an "OO."

Our mouth can make all of these sounds, and many, many more. In fact, virtually every sound we make is complex in one way or another. And that complexity is just what we need to hear, if we're going to make the audience happy.


So what CAN we hear?

Our ears are really amazing things. We can hear sounds from the air, beating against our eardrum and thereby shaking the inner ear through a couple of really tiny bones, and we can hear vibrations -- if they're fast enough -- that directly jiggle our inner ear back and forth.

If you plug your ears completely, as with ear plugs or (not recommended) using your fingers, so no air molecules can sneak in, then you can hear these inner vibes. Moving your head from side to side, even as fast as you can, doesn't create a pitch that's high enough to hear. But if you hum softly -- while your ears are plugged -- you'll make a sound that's in the hearing range; and if you study it, you'll notice that it's mostly a dull low rumble, with no hissing or squeaks to complexify it. If you simply breathe, you might hear a distant whooshing sound, but again with no high pitched details. If you whistle, it will sound like someone else is doing it.

By humming a slur of pitches, like an air-raid siren, you'll notice that certain piches are louder than others, because the flesh that sits between your mouth and your ears starts to jiggle more violently at these pitches -- it resonates! You can try this with a bowl of jelly, too.

Some singers will plug an ear when they're not sure of their pitch while singing in the midst of a large group. You hear less of yourself, and none of the others of course, yet the pitch you hear best (your own pitch) will always be in the hearing range -- loud and clear.

We'll call these sounds that you hear with your ears plugged internal hearing. What you hear of yourself.

More, in a few days.


If our ear is so great at picking up external sounds, then what does it hear of US?

Well, there are really only four methods to hear yourself externally:

Method 1 - by the echoes in the room (or in the shower!);

Method 2 - by the air disturbances that diffract around your cheeks, from lips to ears, and beyond;

Method 3 - by the air disturbances that are dying down in the air around you (reverberation); and

Method 4 - from some loudspeaker, that's sending you the output of some microphone.

Each of these is far different from what you'd hear if you sang directly toward your ear, but they’re all better than not hearing yourself at all. Years ago, when we lived out on the wide grassy savannah, we only could use Methods 2 and 3. Later on when we moved into caves -- and today, into condominiums -- we began to use Method 1, and eventually Method 4.

And each of these gives you a different perspective on yourself.

So, what do you need to hear of yourself? And why?

Well, we need to hear more than a guttural rumbled “bone conduction, because it tells us almost nothing about how we sound . . . except maybe our pitch. If we're going to sing well (or speak well), then we need to develop good habits that serve us well while we sing.

- We need to sing on pitch, and arrive at it immediately so the entire duration of each note is on pitch.

- We need to make each word (or sound) come across clearly.

- We need to sing as a group using matching sounds that fit together harmonically.

- We need to know if we're too breathy, or too nasal, or too brash.

- We need to hone our foreign dialect or language as called for by the song.

To pull this off, we need the details in our voice, and if we rehearse in a group, we need to hear our OWN details:

- low-pitched basics, like the fundamental frequency we're producing (usually the same as the pitch of the note, but not always);

- the harmonically-related partials that lie . . . 2X, 3X, 4X . . . above the fundamental tone;

- the timbre of the voice, that colors the sounds so we can create vowels and sing in various styles and other languages, and know that it's a human rather than a trumpet or a flute that's singing.

- the unwanted hissing, gurgling, distortion and other noises that we don't want to make;

A bass can sing pitches down to around 60 Hz (60 opening cycles of the vocal folds for every second of time -- named after Heinrich Hertz, who studied this sort of thing). So they need to hear that pretty clearly. A soprano can sing pitches up to around 1,000 Hz.

But that's just the pitches. Actually, there are even frequencies lower than the pitches, that come from the beating or interference between two pitches -- like the throbbing you sometimes hear from a two-engined airplane. And there are much, much higher pitches that are caused by tiny turbulent swirls around sharp corners and the ends of the vocal folds as they close together -- like eddies in a river, but lots faster.

For example, the super-high frequencies we hear when someone lisps or has a high sibilance in their voice. I used to wonder why, when I sat in my bedroom, I could hear my Mom and my sister out in the other room, but it was all S sounds sneaking under the gap below the door. The mid-ranges just sounded blocked and far away, but the sibilance cut right through.

So, if we can generate all these sounds with our vocal system, the obvious question is -- drum roll, please -- What sounds do we WANT to make? And not make?

And, then: How do we learn to build strength on the good stuff, and discard the bad habits?

We'll explore some new ideas, in Chapter 4.


So where do we start?

In our case, it began shortly after our initial meeting. One of us -- Pete Mickelson -- is an engineer by career, and works as a consultant. The other -- Ray Miller -- is a psychologist with a life-long curiosity about music and harmony. In fact, a guy who TOOK psychology, just so he could better understand how the human inside us appreciates harmony in the first place.

Our meeting came about because we both appreciate a good cup of coffee -- and because Ray was working to develop a database from which he could study the architecture of harmony, as he likes to call it. Naturally, Ray is a life-long barbershopper, too. He discovered it while he was in the Marines getting ready to ship out to the battle of Iwo Jima, but his Mom -- a delightful young lady who I met at the tender age of 98 -- told me he's been singing on the stage at least since he was two.

Over our first cup of coffee, Ray told me that singing in a barbershop quartet demands the utmost attention to the sounds that you -- as a member of the team -- are producing. These sounds need to fit together precisely with the other three, in order that the harmony develops fully and raises the hairs on the back of your neck. Anything less is just . . . ho-humm.

If you stand together in a circle, at the end of a hallway for example, you can really hone your group skills, because you're immersed in your sounds, but naturally there are all sorts of artificial resonances and echoes there that you won’t have on the stage, to say nothing of the fact that onstage you can only hear your partners' voices, and barely your own.

Laughing, I brought to mind the image of Lily Tomlin, the telephone operator on Rowan-and-Martin's Laugh-In show -- with one hand cupped to her ear and the other . . . well, let's not go there. Remember how she used to say "We are the telephone company, and we are omipeetent!"

But No said Ray, seriously. You can't use hand cupping while you're rehearsing barbershop, because you've always got your music in one hand, and a pencil in the other, making notes on how each vowel should sound so that together they come out and fit together perfectly in concert.

In that very moment, HearFones were born.

While Ray was starting to tell me how he wanted his database structured, and what he wanted to do with it, I wandered aimlessly around the kitchen and found a 2-litre Diet Pepsi bottle waiting to be recycled. With our kitchen scissors, I cut out the two side shoulders from it, and stuck them together with some of my soccer son Khamla's duct tape and bent a wire clothes hanger into a crude headband that would hold the bottle shoulders up to his ear -- hands free! Eureka!

Then I gently popped it on over his head, expecting laughter.

But no . . . instead he was amazed. "Wow!" Ray said. "You don't know it . . . but what you've made here is a learning tool!"

A what?




By day's end, we had found another bottle and had made the very first set of Hearfones. Only a mother could love a child as beautiful as this!


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