Alban's Blog

Earplugs not only in London and Winnipeg

While sitting at another airport lounge, this time in Berlin, waiting to pick up my pianist Cecile Licad for our rehearsals for the Fauré recording coming up next week, I decided to do a little write-up about my reasons to always play with earplugs. A musician from the orchestra in Winnipeg had posed the question as a comment to my last blog entry, and as I am being asked rather frequently why I put them in, I explain it here again, even though I must have written it already at some point but can’t find this entry anymore…

A couple of years ago my friend and pianist Steven Osborne had suggested to practise with earplugs. As we are performing in spaces so much bigger than our practise room at home, in a hotel or the dressing room of the concert venue, it was a very wise idea (thank you, Steevie!!!) to use earplugs to balance out the difference of the acoustics. While a little room is immediately filled with our sound, in a proper hall we have to work so much harder, and practising with earplugs makes you work harder already in the little room – the perfect preparation for the concert stage which often sounds much drier once it is filled with people. And the playing with earplugs just takes away the reverb of the room, so what we hear is very similar to that what we hear on stage (without earplugs).

I was a good student and followed Steven’s advice for almost a year, until I suddenly had the intuition to leave them in my ears on stage after warming up for a Haydn D Major in Brussels. I hated every second of that concert, it sounded so awful without the normal acoustic of the hall that I hardly ever felt as ashamed as during this concert. You can imagine my surprise when the audience reaction was more enthusiastic than normally after a Haydn Concerto, and when I listened to the recording (it was radio broadcasted) I realized that it was one of my better performances of that piece. How come? During the concert I thought I played out of tune and with bad sound, but on tape it sounded considerably perfect and more important musically more interesting than usually.

Obviously by having the ears pretty much closed off all my antennas had to become much more sensible and focused to survive authistic experiment. And by cutting out the room acoustics I could really hear the center of the sound and the notes which is very interesting, but not fulfilling at all, and in order to make up for this rather unpleasant sound experience I felt musically more challenged, realize I had to be more creative to overcome the ugly sound. By now in no performance can I allow myself to just enjoy the ride; playing with earplugs confronts me with a certain urgency, and the problem of some musicians who play a lot and where some kind of automaticisms appears (some go onto “auto-pilot”) is eliminated.

Another great benefit is the elimination of these little disturbing noises the bow produces when things aren’t going so smoothly. This used to intimidate me, made me even more uptied and therefore I started playing more carefully. With earplugs I don’t hear these noises which don’t really travel into the audience anyway. I believe that the earplugs enable me to hear more the actual sound which arrives in the audience, not the confusing stuff going on just around me. It also takes care of the dangers of bad or good halls; in a bad hall with dry acoustics string players and especially cellists tend to feel lost and small and start forcing the sound which doesn’t help at all, while in a good hall we think we sound wonderful, or we do sound wonderful where we are sitting, and we relax too much in enjoyment of our own greatness without being aware that already ten, fifteen meters away the sound isn’t all that great anymore. I have played in numerous halls, among other most recently in Winnipeg, where I heard myself extremely isolated thus thinking I was playing far too loud in comparison with the orchestra which obviously was wrong – no cellist can ever play far louder than a big symphony orchestra! We can try, but we’ll most definitely fail 🙂
Another wonderful advantage of using the earplugs is the elimination of any noises coming from the audience: I hear no coughing, no yawning nor snoring, no cellphones, talking or burping – I am in my own world, much closer to the music and much more concentrated than without. But do you still hear enough from the orchestra, is a very popular question. Oh yes, I do, and for that matter, I hear them much clearer, much less blury, also because my own sound-cloud is dimuinished and I can actually react much better to what is going on around me, except when the conductor is trying to tell me something I have to ask him to speak up.

Anyway, I am not sitting at any lounge anymore, didn’t manage to finish this text before Cecile arrived, and as we were practising frentically the past few days before flying to London again (right now) I had no time to finish it. Last night we played a little houseconcert in front of ten friends and family (well, some cancelled, some I forgot to tell, and actually it was much nicer having only a few there, so one could actually talk to everybody afterwards) with the full program of the cd, and we came to realize that Fauré is a highly underrated composer! These two sonatas are hellishly difficult especially for the piano, and musically not obvious whatseoever, but after a while of working patiently its beauty appears, and it is becoming almost addictive to play. What means “obvious music”? Well, there is music which speaks immediately to you but after a while you could get tired of it, and there are certain pieces which need a bit more time but which grow on you until you really don’t understand at all why you had a hard time liking them in the first place.

Especially the last movement of the first sonata amazes me again and again. He puts a very slow metronom marking, and our musical instinct wants to go considerably quicker than the suggested marking of 80 beats per minute, but today we really tried to keep it under control, and it works so much better than following the instinct – another level of music comes out, the one beyond the “obvious” emotional cloud with the big gestures, something much more intimate, tender and meaningful, but it is very hard to trust and stick to the slower pulse. Oh no, we are not playing the whole movement strictly at 80, but it makes a difference if one plays it in general at 120 and above; a different piece of music.

Four hours later: we arrived at 10:20 pm at Heathrow, rented a car, waited for the suitcase which Janos had left in the carrent-shuttel, and then drove to Monmouth right at the Welsh border for two hours where we are staying at a gorgeous little country hotel, the same we stayed during our last recording session at Wyastone Estate – and again my son János is joining me, this time he has even been officially hired as our page turner for this recording session, earning his first real money. He helped during the rehearsals and turned pages at the concert last night, and except some little lapses when I was playing fast notes (Papillon is the one virtuoso piece on the disc) and he couldn’t follow my line anymore he did exceptionally well. Good luck, Jáncsi!

– – 3 am, I call it a day, and will post this tomorrow morning at breakfast!


  • George (from California)

    Excellent advice on use of EarPlugs..I have a gig this weekend at a noisy Bar on Halloween Eve…I will try them and see how they work. Cicile was here in Santa Rosa last Season with our local symphony and was magnificent!

  • sweetie

    hello darling, couldn’t resist, see you soon in Amsterdam xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

  • Rhonda Broenicke

    SLSO (St. Louis Symphony Orchestra members under Slatkin 1980’s) back desk cellist R.S. (let the section from behind as we like to joke) always taught me as a pupil to focus on a corner in the back of the hall (Powell Symphony Hall) and visualize your sound going out there, to that person who could only afford a cheap seat. British cellist S. I. and Dutch cellist P.W. also literally look up into the corner of the hall or focus on a person or spot in the hall such as a good lecturer, making eye contact with their audiences, communicating non-verbally whilst playing, conveying the piece to the listener. P. W. focal point on the cello is where the bow touches the string, the contact point of all sound production, also using flat hair and appropriate bow speed on the bridge. R. S. and the briliant cellist/partner of Vladislaw Szpilman were always inventing wasy in typical American/Polish fashion, to up the volume in the section while still playing heart-renderingly musically. R. S. always said the rasps and sounds did not carry into the audience. The classic string combi back then was tungsten Spirocore C, G, Jagaer D and A. Your idea of earplugs is new to me although I did play with a tuning peg in my left ear (baroque cello) for concerts with early baroque choir for numerous concerts in S. Holland churches with wide, even 8 sec. reverb (Domkerk, Utrecht). This also once due to an ear infection because own intonation was not audible through unfocussed choir drone. This peg-reverb, which you surely know about is done by inserting C-tuning peg into the left ear but be careful it does not get stuck or come out the other side. (Just joking). Sorry if this is becoming a cello-forum but where else to discuss these tips? Privately? Who needs to keep secrets, if one can employ them successfully, more power to them! Next time I will tell you whom to contact to get the aluminium hairs on your bow, if interested! He is still alive and kicking in mid-Florida, a K.A. (kick-ass) cellist, Szpilman’s 2nd cellist partner from the 1950’s and ’60’s (see you tube, Szpilman/Ciechanskï Rachmaninoff gminor sonata). Warm regards, RCB

  • Augustus McCormick

    ALUMINUM HAIRS?!?! Interesting

    Alban, I too was introduced to this “restricted hearing” method of practice and I too decided to keep the–one plug which was for the left ear–in for the performance. I really enjoy using them. Ad Astra per Aspera, Augustus McCormick


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