‘Lost arts’

28th August 2014 | Concerts, Musings | 1 comment

This morning I listened to a longish discussion on Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme about the technique of singing with a microphone.  Many singers today use headsets rather than microphones when they perform, because headsets allow them to have their hands free. To my astonishment, the technique of holding a microphone and singing into it was described as ‘a lost art’.

The discussion didn’t even mention the ‘art’ which seems to me much more in danger of being ‘lost’: that of singing without a microphone at all. Everyone seemed to take it for granted that some kind of amplification has to be used. The question was merely whether the microphone should be held in the hand or located on a headset. It was as if the pre-amplification era had already been forgotten.

Of course the use of microphones is relatively recent, compared with the very long period over which singers have worked hard to learn how to project their voices across large auditoriums. There is a big difference between the sound of someone who has trained their voice to project, and the sound of someone who relies entirely on amplification. In fact, when microphones are used, there is often a mismatch between the style of singing and the decibel level of the amplification. To me there is something slightly ridiculous about a singer who is clearly making no effort to project their voice, and yet whose amplified voice is blasting off the walls of the venue. When you see a singer making an effort to produce a large sound, the effect is completely different and much more emotionally convincing. You understand the relationship between effort and result. A large sound with no effort is just a trick.

I understand that a microphone could be used to enhance a singer’s technique, but I must say I rarely see it used in that way. Usually it just seems to be used to supply an illusion of power which the singer themselves cannot supply. This worship of the microphone must be very frustrating for classically-trained singers who have actually spent years of their lives learning to project their voice with the power of their lungs alone.

1 Comment

  1. Jon S

    Another thought-provoking post – I like your observation about ‘the mismatch between the style of singing and the decibel level of the amplification,’ which had never quite struck me before in these terms. As a (classical) singer I’ve been a bit perturbed, in this and previous years, to overhear audience comments after performances of vocal/operatic music at the Proms. Of course, the Albert Hall is a notoriously difficult acoustic, and one which rarely allows for an optimal balance between singers and orchestra, especially from the perspective of audience members seated high up in the Circle. But it is nevertheless always a shock to overhear people complaining after a concert that “the microphones weren’t balanced properly.” The stage at these concerts is always festooned with microphones for the radio broadcast, but of course these are not generally used to amplify the performers within the hall (there are only a few exceptions to this, usually in contemporary works which specifically call for electronic amplification). It’s always encouraging to become aware that the Proms succeed in attracting people who don’t normally attend many classical concerts, and are perhaps unfamiliar with the conventions of classical performance; but it seems that many of these same people have become so accustomed to the idea that voices must always be amplified in order to be heard that they are simply unaware that it is possible, through training and acquired skills, to learn to sing audibly over even quite a large orchestra. Though not always in a barn like the Albert Hall!

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