Playing in an Acoustical Vacuum

My sister and I played recitals the past two days in two different "recreation halls", both at senior citizen centers. Not only were the pianos awful, but the acoustics were very dry in both places, caused by numerous curtains above the stage and acoustical tiles on the ceilings of both halls. Luckily I have learned not to struggle against acoustical vacuums, difficult as it may be to resist.

Playing in these halls reminded me of a harrowing experience I had at a budding solo artist. I was 18 or so when I won a state-wide solo competition, the prize being a live recital on the largest classical radio station in the area. It was not pre-recorded. It was live on the radio.

I showed up at the studio to warm up. They showed me the room I was to play in. In a radio studio, all rooms are completely dead acoustically. This one was literally carpeted on every inch from top to bottom, an acoustical vacuum.

The clarinet, along with all woodwind instruments, has no acoustical ring itself. The small flare in the bell does little to give fullness to the sound. Clarinetists rely on the room to fill out the sound.

A string instrument has a small acoustical "shell" in its body, a hollow box with some resonance capacity. A piano has a large sound board and body to enhance the sound. None such enhancer exists on the clarinet.

Throughout the program I struggled to get the full round sound I knew I was capable of, to no effect. The room swallowed any tone. All the I could hear was the reed's buzz. But a musician often cannot control their desire to sound good. I subconsciously opened my throat, raised my soft-palette, anything which might enhance the resonance of my tone.

The recital ended with Claude Debussy's Premiere Rhapsodie, about 8 minutes of gorgeous, lyrical, often very soft music. By the middle of the piece, my throat and soft-palette were completely distraught and fatigued by the constant and un-natural stress of trying to "resonate" my sound.

I began to leak air through my nose, a sort of snort, or snoring sound. Also, since the air was leaking through my nose, I couldn't get enough pressure to play, so I had to blow harder, which caused the snorting to increase. Remember,this was live on the radio, heard by thousands. I couldn't just stop and rest.

Can you picture it?

I managed to finish the piece, barely. My pianist said I deserved a purple heart for getting through it. I've never forgotten the experience.

I have also learned something from it, and found a way to test and challenge that "compulsive" desire to fill out the sound in un-tenable situations.

I occasionally practice with earplugs in. It creates an uncomfortable detachment from the aural feedback which all musicians rely on to adjust their tone and pitch. Using recordings for feedback, I found that I sounded much better than I thought, despite being cut off from feedback. I began to accept the limitation instead of fighting it, and even began to thrive while playing with earplugs.

The vibrations can be "heard" inside your head. After all, the reed is vibrating inside your mouth, and if you play single lip, the vibrations transmit through your teeth. You can even notice slight variations in the resonance between notes, and adjust to equalize them. In fact, the longer I played with earplugs, the better it sounded in the recordings I made of the tests. Finding the most "resonant" tone in my head translated into a beautifully even and resonant tone outside my head.

If only I had grasped this valuable truth before playing that recital live on the radio.

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8 comments for “Playing in an Acoustical Vacuum

  1. EdW
    January 31, 2010 at

    Back in grad school , the practice rooms had carpet, drapes on the walls and an acoustical tile ceiling. I recall adjusting reeds to sound good and then going into the orchestra rehearsal room and being shocked that the reeds sounds like junk. It was like a kazoo. I then had to scramble through my case to find something to play that would sound reasonable.

    • February 4, 2010 at

      You would think we would learn to be able to imagine how a reed will sound in a different sized room. I always had to try reeds on stage; nothing I found at home would sound the same in the hall.

  2. Betsy Sturdevant
    January 30, 2010 at

    I discovered by accident a while back that it was extremely beneficial to practice with one earplug. (I must have thought I needed one ear open to hear!) I'll try both earplugs next time. Thanks for the tip!

  3. January 30, 2010 at

    Thanks for this post! I've also experienced the "snorting" when I've been fatigued, although it happened more often when I was younger. I could never figure out why it happened. My teacher said it would go away as if I practiced more, although I already practiced quite a lot. I particularly remember a performance I did of Gade's Fantasy Pieces which, I treated most maliciously in the end. The snorting was very audible. Luckily, I was only playing for less than twenty persons, and not live on the radio…

    So, the moral would be to use the room one plays in for what it's worth and not exhaust oneself with trying to provide resonance which one cannot fully accomplish anyway?

    • February 4, 2010 at

      Hi Joar,

      I've never heard of anyone else having the same problem. I think it may also be caused by playing too resistant a setup, which younger players tend to attempt. More experienced players get a fuller sound with a less hard reed and mouthpiece combination.

      The way you described the solution, it sounds so easy. But the problem is the compulsive earnestness of an idealist imagination. Overcoming it is as easy as overcoming a fear of heights.

      • Tina B
        February 21, 2010 at

        I was a student of Betsy's (X) years ago. I think I was preparing for my senior recital when I developed the problem of leaking air thorugh my nose. It was pretty unnerving. I'm sure it was due to fatigue – never before that or since have I spent the number of hours I did then playing/practicing.

        I am enjoying reading your blog, especially about your former teacher. I love historical articles and pictures.

      • February 22, 2010 at

        Hi Tina,

        Thanks for your comment. Yes, it is unnerving to leak through the nose! I am somewhat comforted knowing that others have had similar experiences.

        How cool that you studied with Betsy!

        Thanks for reading my blog. I am always pleasantly surprised. You have given me a nudge to pull myself out of a recent slump and get back to writing.


      • Tina B
        February 24, 2010 at

        Yes, very cool indeed!! I started going to CSO concerts as a student (minus the year of the strike, bummer) and it was an integral part of my development as a musician. I have enjoyed your playing for years, and the whole woodwind section as well.

        I hope your mom has a complete recovery, and that your visit is a comfort to her.

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