Listening to one’s own voice as a singer is bound to distort healthy voice production. Adrian Fourcin has explained why in an excellent chapter called ‘Hearing and Singing’ in Janice Chapman’s 2006 book, Singing and Teaching Singing: A Holistic Approach to Classical Voice.
First, sound is directional, which means that the sound is less intense around the singer’s ears than it is for a listener (or recording equipment) in front of the singer. Also, the pattern of vibrations is complicated by interactions of sound waves around the head. Typically, the singer hears less, but wants to hear their own voice as loudly as they hear the singers around them (eg in a choir), or as loudly as they hear their voice on a recording, or they want to replicate the same intensity as the teacher’s vocal demonstration. Singers who want to hear their voice as ‘powerful’, or to match the volume of other voices or recordings, ‘force’ their voice, rather than ‘releasing’ it.
Second, a singer hears the vibrations of their own voice conducted through bone, tissue and fluid in the head. This affects the perception of volume; much is heard through body conduction, rather than through the air conduction in the room. This also effects perception of timbre (tonal quality); the lower harmonics sound stronger than the higher ones, as though the ‘bass’ is turned up or the ‘treble’ turned down on a hi-fi; so our voice will always sound less ringing or clear to us than to a listener. A singer producing a ‘thin’ tone voice, or who favours a ‘twangy’ tone may be listening to themselves, and trying to make their own voice sound ‘ringing’ or clearer to themselves; this will inevitably mean a tighter tongue and higher larynx position, which compromise vocal efficiency.
Third, the acoustic environment affects how the singer hears their own voice. Reflector surfaces vary from one space to the next, so there is no consistency in how the singer will hear the sound coming back, and different harmonic bandwidths (e.g. ‘treble’ or ‘bass’) can be enhanced or dampened. For example, it can be very disconcerting after practising in an empty hall before a concert to feel the sound being sucked away when the curtains are drawn and there are lots of audience bodies absorbing the sound waves rather than bouncing them back to the singer in the concert itself. An audience may hear a really good sound while the singer thinks their voice lacks power or colour. Typically, singers who try to make their voice sound ‘right or ‘good’ have weak body awareness, and do not trust their bodies; learning physical technique can be slow because the singer keeps listening and evaluating their sound rather than focussing on the physical skills that would actually improve the sound.
a) much of the initial sound signal of the voice moves away from the singer or is distorted near the ears,
b) much of what the singer hears is distorted by conduction of vibrations through the singer’s body, and
c) acoustic environment influences the sound waves unpredictably,
a singer can never know what they truly sound like to the listener, and should never listen to themselves when warming up, practising or performing.
Only well trained singers know how to translate information about sound back into what they need to do physically to modify the sound or make the process of singing easier. It is therefore often counter-productive if a teacher draws the singer’s attention to tonal quality or volume – they would do far better to give guidance on physical technique that would produce the desired sound.
(This is an excerpt from a longer article ‘How can we help students become independent of teachers? (or, ‘The perils of warming up’)’, first published in ‘Singing’ – the Journal of The Association of Teachers of Singing (UK), Spring 2011)