By Paul Robinson

I remember many years ago performing in a chamber orchestra with guest artist Isaac Stern. The virtuoso arrived for rehearsal, removed his violin from its case, and walked about the stage, politely greeting the musicians. At one point, he walked over to me and exchanged hellos. Then, standing right next to me, he put his bow to the violin and began to warm up. I was startled as a gritty, almost rough sound emanated from the instrument. I immediately thought to myself, “This is the great Isaac Stern?”

What I failed to consider was that I was right next to the instrument. Stern continued playing as he walked away, and with a little distance, and the reverberation of the hall, I heard a beautiful, rich tone emerge as he filled the hall with a wonderful, robust, and vibrant sound that simply wasn’t as apparent at close range.

I thought back to my original reaction when he had first put the bow to the string. “Oh, yes,” I thought. “He has to play it that way for the audience to hear it this way.”

This is true for all of us, but we’re often at a loss to know what the audience is really hearing during a performance. Performers don’t have the luxury of jumping into the audience and then back to the stage to compare the sound. Perhaps you have asked someone to play your instrument onstage while you listened from the hall. The sound and volume produced by the other person, however, will not give you an accurate portrayal of what you sound like.

So how can you know for sure you’re being heard in the way you intend? Without resorting to recordings or to the opinions of others, there is a way to address the problems of distance, balance, and real-time listening while you are onstage. It’s a simple technological approach that has the potential to change the way you play. As a result, you’ll be able to work both more creatively and more independently.

Here’s what you’ll need to get started:

  • A stereo amplifier. The amplifier should have two microphone inputs and a headphone output. Many amplifiers have excellent tone controls that allow a more accurate match to your natural sound.
  • Two microphones. You’ll need two mics with cords and appropriate microphone stands. You can place the mics as little as 15 feet in front of you to get the added effects of the hall resonance. Be careful not to place them too far away, or sound delay will become a problem.
  • Earbuds. Find earbuds with an excellent range from low to high frequencies. There are some that have a frequency range of 6–23,000 Hz available for under $50. Depending on the power of your amplifier, you may also need an additional battery amp for the earbuds in order to accurately match the sound level in the hall.
  • Extension lines. You’ll also need extension lines for the earbuds. These can be purchased from an electronics store. Connect the lines as needed to reach your position onstage. The headphone output on the amplifier will probably require an adapter to accommodate the smaller ¼-inch plugs found on most commercial earbuds and extension lines.
  • Hearing protectors. Most important for the success of this effort is a set of noise-canceling headphones that can be purchased from a sporting goods store. These are commonly used on rifle ranges and by outdoor crews at airports. I recommend one that is rated at 28 dB or higher.

Keep in mind that the better the equipment you get, the better your results will be.

Putting It All Together

There are two locations that you’re dealing with in this method, the player onstage, and the audience in the hall. The goal is to be playing onstage while hearing what the audience hears, but to get set up the first time you might enlist the help of a friend or teacher to play your instrument onstage while you adjust the controls and mics in the hall.

  1. Connect the mics and headphones to the amplifier, using the extension lines as needed.
  2. Have your assistant play your instrument onstage while you stand next to the microphones in the hall.
  3. Set up the mics where the audience will be located, at least 15 feet away from the stage, but not so far that delay becomes an issue. Experiment on your own with microphone height and distance to get an optimum comfort level with appropriate hall resonance and minimal sound delay. Also, try to place the amp near the mics if possible.
  4. While you’re wearing the earbuds and hearing protectors, set the volume and tone controls to match what you hear acoustically (without the ear buds and hearing protectors). After that, you can do the rest on your own without the help of an assistant.
  5. Insert the earbuds into your ears and don the hearing protectors so you only hear the sounds coming through the mics instead of the sound right next to the instrument. For violins and violas, extra padding at the chin rest will help attenuate the bone conduction, which gives the impression of a mellower sound than what the audience hears. Now, with the headphone lines extended, go play onstage.
  6. The resonance of the hall should become apparent, allowing you to experience what the audience will be hearing.
  7. Adjust your playing as necessary to acquire the tone, balance, dynamics, projection, resonance, vibrato, and other effects you desire to communicate to the audience.

I sometimes ask my students, when we’re discussing musical subtleties, “If the audience didn’t hear it, did you do it?” With time and experimentation, a player will soon learn what is “getting out there” and what is not, and this method will help.

It can even serve as a way to develop a bigger sound. By lowering the amplifier volume slightly during this sound check, the player instinctively begins to project more to compensate.

While this method is not a definitive solution to informed practicing, it’s an additional tool in the search for performance information. And it is an interesting and enjoyable way to more accurately control a wider range of musical expression.