The challenges of sound


writer icon Kay Lagercrantz     Sabine Van Erp   |   Tech     🕐 16. Mar. 2018

Would you go as far as to wear a mask, just to be able to sing anywhere without making as much noise? You might never have considered that this is even an issue. However, singers face the struggle of needing to practise while not making enemies of their neighbours.

The need to practise
It is of the utmost importance for musicians to regularly practise their instruments, and singers are no exception. This practise can consist of learning songs, as well as performing abstract vocalisations. A practise session can be anything from 30 minutes to a few hours, and music colleges and conservatoires encourage students to practise every day. This habit is expected to continue after training is completed, in order to sustain a successful singing career.

While in school, would-be professional singers have the luxury of designated rehearsal spaces. However, even the most well-equipped music school does not have enough space for every student to practise every day. This leads to many students having to practise at home. As unfair as this may sound, a huge number of professional singers also practise in their homes. After leaving school, they no longer have access to the plethora of practise rooms they had previously enjoyed.

Singers need to be able to maintain their instrument, especially in the case of it being their livelihood. Much of what an audience hears is the result of thousands of hours of practise. If a singer were to stop practising, the end result would be noticeably poorer. If they are unable to maintain the standard that is expected of them, singers would see a decrease in bookings and ultimately find themselves unemployed. It is unusual for a singer to have a permanent contract of employment somewhere. Because of this, singers are always working to secure the next job. They are constantly having to prove themselves to the next employer. A singer simply cannot afford to have a bad day, which is why they find themselves in the situation of having to sing in so many different places, the most common of these being their home.

Living surrounded by others
The stereotypical musician is a low-earner. They might live in a house share or an apartment. This means living in close quarters with other people. This is not the best environment for singing, not just for the singer but for their neighbours too. Many singers share experiences of feeling threatened by others because of the noise of their singing. Classical singer and singing teacher Emma Grossmith explains:

“I have had extremely difficult neighbours in the past, who have made my life a misery because I needed to practise during daytime hours. They did things like banging on the walls, which made it emotionally very difficult to feel free to practise properly. Once they came around and shouted expletives at me, at my own front door.”

Practising during daytime hours is not illegal in most countries. Even so, some neighbours feel provoked enough by the singing to act with aggression. In the case of Emma, this treatment eventually played a part in choosing where she and her family should live.

"I was very fearful … the need to feel free to sing in my own home has to some extent dictated our choice of home and means we live further out of town than is really suitable.”

Treated like criminals
No-one wants to be treated like a criminal, but this is how many singers are made to feel for practising in their homes. Phillippa Cairns, a professional singer and music teacher, shares her experiences of living in an apartment with another singer.

“We did receive complaints from the neighbours from time to time. My housemate was even threatened with an ASBO (Anti-Social Behaviour Order) for practising too often!”

One might wonder what lengths singers go to, in order to avoid trouble with their neighbours. Some singers try to make contact with their neighbours in order to address any complaints. Suzie Purkis, a singer, teacher and vocal leader, tried this approach with little success.

“I have trouble in the flat where I live now. My upstairs neighbour often bangs on my ceiling when I’m practising. She’s unwilling to enter dialogue about it and won’t answer the door when I knock. I received a letter from the city council saying a neighbour had complained about the noise.”

Extreme measures
It would not be unrealistic to say that many singers would be willing to try anything to avoid this daily worry. Those who can afford it, spend huge amounts of money to install a noise-dampening cubicle, about the size of a regular wardrobe. This may solve the issue of practising at home, but the high cost puts most people off. It also fails to address the issue of singing anywhere other than home.

Many venues are ill-equipped for singers, with nowhere appropriate for them to warm up before a concert. Auditions are also an issue. Many singers travel by public transport to an audition. Generally singers get a mere 30 minutes to warm up before their allocated audition slot. The expectation is that they will arrive already warmed up. One cannot take a soundproof wardrobe along to every audition. Opera singer Henrik Lagercrantz knows only too well the importance of having enough time to warm up properly before a performance, even in less than ideal conditions. “If you are at a hotel, there may be rules about not disturbing guests. I have heard of people singing into a pillow to be able to warm up. It puts a lot of stress on you if you feel that you might disturb someone. Sometimes you have to go shout in an alley, or in the bathroom, which does not offer the best acoustics for singing.”

Could this be the solution?
BELTBOX is designed to fill that gap. Described as a portable vocal dampener, the BELTBOX is a mask that, when placed over the mouth and nose, reduces the amount of noise produced by singing. There is a hands-free option, with a head strap to keep it securely in place. The aim with BELTBOX is to be able to sing anywhere, including on public transport. In this way, singers can happily vocalise to their hearts content without worrying about upsetting others.

One of the questions raised regarding BELTBOX is whether a singer can hear themselves while using the mask. Interestingly, this is not an issue. The bones in the face play a huge role in helping a singer to hear themselves. The mask will also reflect sound back to the singer through bone conduction. This is the same phenomenon that leads people to think that their voice sounds strange when they hear a recording of themselves. The recording is actually how you sound to everyone else. What you usually hear is a mixture of the recording, plus the sound conducted from your facial bones.

Concerns about technique
A primary concern from the singer’s perspective is how the BELTBOX might obstruct a singer from employing the correct technique. Emma Grossmith expands on this issue, saying that she wonders “how the equipment would affect my ability to move and use my face freely and appropriately.” Her concerns extend to good vocal health, as she explains “Being mobile in the face is so important and a feeling of space and lift is critical to keeping a healthy sound.”

Open to misuse, risk for abuse
Imagine if BELTBOX was to fall into the wrong hands. It is easy to focus on the singer and how such a product might help them, but there is a darker side to soundproofed masks and silent wardrobes. Could a portable human silencer do more harm than good? Sometimes things created with the best of intentions can turn out to be a living nightmare. The mask itself does not look inviting, which does not help matters. Musical theatre actress Emma Gould, described BELTBOX as “[a mask that] looks torturous”, going on to say that “part of the joy of singing is that it allows you to feel free, and I think with one on my face I would feel strapped down.”

A wearable practise room is probably not the answer to a singer’s practising problems. One has to wonder if products such as BELTBOX first gain traction as a gimmick, before being relegated to the late night TV shopping channels, where they will be bought by anyone but singers.

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