July 24, 2010

The Power of Sound: Joshua Leeds

I'm re-reading a fascinating book right now: The Power of Sound by Joshua Leeds. What is the book all about?  Psychoacoustics, the field that Tomatis pioneered. Like me, Leeds benefited from Dr. Alred Tomatis' method of Listening Training. And he has salient things to say about sound, its healing as well as destructive properties. 


Cochlea


Fortunately, in the last decade or so, more orchestral musicians have become aware that exposure to loud sounds (above 90 decibels) impacts the ear. It's not uncommon now to see orchestra pits with sound baffles (usually protecting the wind player's ears from the brass and percussion sections that sit behind). The European union even has decibel level standards. Classical singers, in my estimation, are lagging behind in their awareness. All too often, they rehearse or have a voice lesson in a small room, singing at full force, and then wonder why the voice isn't responding so well (pop singers standing in front of a loud monitor are in trouble too). And why isn't it? Because the two little muscles in the ear - the same ones that guide the singer's audio-vocal control - are trying to protect the ear from the loud sound by shutting off! Instead of contracting in the right way, they actually relax. Here's the deal: the singer who is pumping out a lot of sound needs a lot of room! Of course, this is common sense, but you'd be surprised how this is ignored by the smartest persons. If only the ear could 'bleed'. But no. The little cells just die off, one by one, without anyone noticing (voice teachers take note: letting your student sing at the top his or her lungs a few feet away from you is probably harming you). And here's a curious fact. Did you know that 30 percent of the cells in the cochlea are affected before hearing loss shows up on a hearing test?  Sobering, isn't it?

Leed's book has a great deal of information on how and when to protect one's ears, the use of sound, as well as the many modalities for 'sound healing.' The attention he's given to the field of psychoacoustics is nothing short of groundbreaking insofar as he is the first writer to draw many strands within the field together. His research is up to date, provocative, and eye (one might say ear!) opening. 

I highly recommend this book! Look for the revised edition in September. As well, you might check out Leed's website for new information.

One last thought. I was reminded as I read Leed's book that singers in the late 19th and early 20th century were taught to observe vocal rest before a performance. This has traditionally been thought of as giving the vocal folds a rest. But what about the ear?  Have you ever been to the country for a few days and then returned to the city, only to find it very noisy? Why wasn't it as noisy before?  Because the ears and brain tuned it out, or even off. The admonition of taking vocal rest before a 'big sing' may just be what the ears need to become fully open so that the resulting performance will be as nuanced as possible.

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