The ongoing season of the Grant Park Music Festival features two musicians who have more in common than their appearances at Pritzker Pavilion–or even their friendship. Pianist Steven Osbourne and cellist Alban Gerhardt, both world class soloists making appearances at Chicago’s venerable summer establishment, are friends off the concert stage, and that friendship has given them both an unusual preference: both musicians practice and perform wearing earplugs.
The concept initially sounds crazy, not unlike a runner strapping on a weighted vest for a sprint or a painter squinting through dark lenses while working. It’s a practice that Osbourne came upon by chance: about 15 years ago, he started to hear a quiet high-pitched noise in his left ear. It lingered and then seemed to sneak into his right ear, coming and going intermittently. After a while, though, the noise remained. Alarmed, Osbourne visited the doctor, who diagnosed him with tinnitus–a permanent ringing sound in the ears likely caused, the doctor told him, by practicing too loudly in a small space. There’s no cure for the condition, but consistent use of earplugs can keep it from worsening. Osborne was outfitted with a special “musician” pair of earplugs, which filter out some noises while allowing others to come through. Although some might assume that practicing with earplugs would quickly result in a death sentence for a musician’s sense of sound, Osbourne found that it was helpful. He then shared this insight with his friend Alban Gerhardt, who doesn’t have tinnitus. Gerhardt tried the earplugs out and found he liked them too: he said they forced him to listen more carefully, and he found it easier to hear the core of his sound, rather than allowing him to get carried away by the beauty of the overtones and their ring in a room.
“It’s such a big difference playing in a little room versus a big hall,” Gerhardt explains. The earplugs essentially strip the sound of the resonance and overtones, and that helps prepare him for performances in large concert halls, with stages that can feel big, dry and unforgiving. As a soloist who plays in these big halls but often practices in hotel rooms, wearing earplugs has closed the acoustic gap between playing in a practice room and a concert hall.
What began as a clever practice tool for two friends quickly became a performance tool. Gerhardt decided to experiment with earplugs during concerts and recitals as well. With the help of the earplugs, he says he feels less overwhelmed by the strength and sonority of a piano or an orchestra. He then relayed his new discovery to his friend Osbourne: “I told him it’s really helpful – almost inspiring – to use them. What we hear with earplugs is so unsatisfying, we’re forced to do a bit more musically.” Osbourne’s perspective as a pianist is a bit different from Gerhardt’s perspective as a string player, but his experience has shown him many of the same benefits. Osbourne deals with a different challenge in moving from the practice room to the concert hall: “Playing a grand piano in a practice room makes a deafening noise, so you end up playing quieter than you should in a hall. To switch power when you’re suddenly in a hall is difficult.”
When he tried Gerhardt’s idea of performing with earplugs, he says the experience was at first scary. “Professional musicians are slightly bemused at why you’d want to cut off sound, but musically it helps me a lot,” Osborne reflects. “It’s easier to get in touch with this idealized sense of music.” He says that, in a way, the lack of aural detail results in a greater ability to relax and experience the music as the audience, which leads him to a more relaxed physical state. “Without earplugs I tend to play too quietly and try to sculpt too carefully – to a level of detail that’s not meaningful to an audience. In the grand scheme of things, those little details aren’t important. What’s important is that you’re completely involved in the music. I find earplugs really helpful for that. In a strange way, it’s not the sound itself being communicated; it’s what’s behind it. How that transfer takes place is terribly mysterious, but that’s the mystery of music. If you’re relaxed, even when talking to someone, there’s a sense of connection.”
The two men rarely play without their trusty earplugs now. Osbourne plays without them for a quick sound check in the hall before performances; Gerhardt plays with them in whether practicing or performing, taking them out only for teaching. The earplug strategy may not be for everybody, but the goal and method is certainly familiar–musicians have different tools for adapting to the sense of aural disorientation that happens when sound changes based on room type and size. I had an orchestral repertoire teacher in my undergrad who liked to move around to different rooms of his house when preparing for an audition in order to disorient his ears and practice with the foreign sensation. I myself tend to practice in “dead” rooms whenever possible, often opting for a heavily-occupied walk-in closet when I don’t have a real practice room available. The process takes away the gloss and makes the sound more honest, which is a powerful tool. Are earplugs the next big thing to happen to practicing in classical music? Maybe, and maybe not–but the concept is an important one. Maybe you’ll be the next to try them out!