Make no mistake, by the very nature of being music teachers our classrooms tend to be very noisy places. Whether you teach vocal, band, orchestra, or general music, the number of students that we deal with combined with the equipment that we make use of adds up to a lot of ambient, extraneous noise that students must mentally filter out in order to hear and understand the teacher. For most teachers raising our vocal intensity and projecting more forcefully is a subconscious and automatic method for dealing with this noise. We find ourselves speaking more loudly in order to be heard. Over time however, and under the right circumstances, pushing our voices too hard can cause potentially irreparable harm to the vocal cords that are so vital to our very careers.
NAfME member Sharon L. Morrow, Ph. D, Associate Professor of Music Education at Westminster Choir College of Rider University in Princeton, NJ has done research on this very problem and her findings point to a very simple and effective way to prevent it. “As musicians protecting our voice is incredibly important,” says Morrow. “The louder that you speak the more effort it takes. As your sound pressure level (vocal volume) and amount of time spent speaking or singing increases your overall vocal load goes up.” High vocal loads for extended periods of time can cause inflammation and potentially lead to permanent damage to the vocal cords. This stress can be exacerbated when combined with illness or allergies. “Our vocal cords are beautifully designed to be resilient but they are not designed to be used without some rest intervals for six or seven hours a day. For teachers with back-to-back teaching assignments all day there will likely be consequences.”
The Issue of Vocal Stress in the Classroom
For Kamy Kellar, NAfME member and general music teacher at Southeast Polk Community Schools in Altoona, Iowa these vocal stresses came to be realized as a result of a mixture of factors both occupational and medical. “I will typically have eleven thirty minute classes each day and depending on how much I sing with them at least 50% of the time I am vocally active,” says Kellar. “At the same time there were other factors playing into my problems. Things like seasonal allergies combined with acid reflux disease were already affecting me and those things combined with the large amount of singing time in class was the perfect storm. At one point my doctor put me on vocal rest to the point that I had to have a substitute teacher in class to do the speaking for me as he was worried I would permanently damage my vocal cords if I didn’t back off.”
The solution for Kellar came as a result of a discussion with a fellow music teacher and NAfME member, Penny Zaugg, who is also a general music teacher at Southeast Polk. Says Zaugg, “I started using a microphone in class several years ago as a result of a combination of acid reflux and vocal stress. I was losing my voice.” This is a common occurrence in many music education and general education classrooms. Says Morrow, “ Even teachers that think they have pipes of steel will eventually have problems down the line if they constantly stress their vocal cords. We can’t really change the pitch of our speaking voice or the amount of time we spend teaching, but we can decrease the required sound pressure levels exerted on our voice simply by using some means of electronic voice amplification.”
Classroom Voice Amplification Systems
Voice amplification systems come in many forms, from basic wireless microphones to full blown, dedicated amplification systems that are designed for that one purpose alone. For both Zaugg and Kellar the solution came in the form of a small wireless mic that could be hooked into their room’s existing sound system. Although there are many different brands and styles of such mics both Zaugg and Kellar now use the Samson Airline Micro Earset System. Says Kellar, “the Airline Micro I use has the transmitter built into the ear piece. There is no wire or belt pack to deal with. Not having the belt pack is a nice feature since it doesn’t get caught on things and you don’t have to make wardrobe decisions in the morning based on where the belt pack would be clipped.”
Other teachers get by with wireless microphone systems that more often find their use in the auditorium or in a performance setting such as the Shure BLX14/PGA31 Headset Wireless System. These mics use the more common belt pack transmitters and an interchangeable microphone. For more information regarding the selection of such mics please refer to the January 2014 issue of Teaching Music. The ear mounted style of the Samson or the more common belt pack style of the Shure work great in situations where you already have a working sound system in the room.
On the high end of such devices are the dedicated soundfield amplification systems. Intended as all in one solutions for a single classroom, these tend to consist of a dedicated wireless microphone that hangs around the teacher’s neck on a lanyard. This microphone connects wirelessly to a dedicated amplifier and speaker system that is mounted somewhere in the room. Because of this design they are ideal for classrooms that do not have a sound system already in place or in rooms where the existing equipment is not adequate to the task. Most of these systems such as the Extron VoiceLift come with additional features such as an audio in jack that allows you to plug in an external device like a computer or MP3 player into the mic and then control its volume directly. The VoiceLift in particular even has a special emergency alert feature built into it where if something goes wrong in the classroom the teacher can send a request for assistance to someone else in the building directly from the mic at the touch of a button.
A similar system is the Lightspeed Redcat. Like the VoiceLift it also hangs around the teacher’s neck and has an audio input in the side. The Redcat however comes as a table top speaker system that can easily be moved from room to room as needed. While the addition of the speaker and other features in these systems results in a much higher price tag, for rooms without a decent sound system they can make a lot of sense.
Purchase and Setup Considerations
There are a few things to consider before settling on any voice amplification system. When Kellar first started using her Airline Micro she ran into a few logistical issues. “The only problem at first was when I needed to play music through the room sound system at the same time I was speaking. My stereo didn’t have a way for me to control the volume of the mic separately from the recording. It was a little inconvenient. If you have a multichannel sound system or a mixer it solves that problem.”
Kellar continues, “Another potential problem depends on how your room has the speakers installed. If they are placed too close to where you stand when you are teaching you can get feedback problems. If I had to do it over I would have had the custodians mount the speakers up higher on the wall or off to the sides more to avoid the feedback.”
Fringe Benefits of Using Voice Amplification In The Classroom
The use of voice amplification seems to provide additional benefits as well. “An unexpected positive outcome for some participants in our survey was that teachers found when using voice amplification there was a decrease in classroom management problems. In addition, research also shows that amplification can be very helpful for second-language learners. The amplification seems to help these students to decode the teacher’s voice from the noise in the room more easily. The signal-to-noise ratio is far better with amplification than with an unamplified voice that is being forced to speak over any ambient room noise.” Other benefits can affect the teacher as well, “One first year teacher told me that he had no idea how much time he spent talking until he heard himself over the speaker. It helped him become much more aware of what the amount of time he was using his voice.”
All of the evidence and experiences of these teachers point to one important fact. Voice amplification can benefit almost any teacher, from small classrooms to large ensemble areas. Protecting our voices should be of primary importance to any musician, and the potential benefits of improved classroom discipline and student attention are icing on the cake.
Best Practices and Mic Etiquette In The Classroom
Using a mic in the classroom isn’t rocket science but it does require the teacher to think ahead and make a few changes to the way that they do certain things. All of our teachers have learned through experience and have a few tips to provide to us.
Learn where the mute button is on your mic and use it whenever you need to talk individually with a student. This is especially true if you go out in the hall to speak with someone. If you don’t mute the mic everyone in the room will hear your private conversations. Also, for some kids with hearing problems using the mic doesn’t make forcing them to sit in the front of the room as necessary.
When working with younger students I find that I need to turn down the mic or sing more softly. The younger kids won’t sing as loudly if my mic is turned up too high. Likewise stick with headset style microphones. They just seem to work better in a noisy music classroom.
First and foremost, music teachers should always strive to use good vocal technique when they speak or sing. However, having access to a voice amplification unit in addition to good vocal hygiene can also be important. There are some inexpensive styles where the speaker is built into the belt pack. These tend to have less audio fidelity, but even that is better than no amplification at all.
NOTE: An edited version of this article originally appeared in NAfME's Teaching Music Magazine in the August 2016 issue. It is reposted here by the original author with permission from NAfME.