So many of us are spending all of our time at home these days, and we find ourselves adapting our lives to our circumstances, working from home, cooking from our pantries, making the best of it. Performing artists are adapting too, and many have posted videos or audio recordings of new or past performances in place of cancelled live performances. [Listen to the Boston Lyric Opera’s final dress rehearsal for their cancelled production of Bellini’s Norma]
Some performers have taken to performing at home. [See Yo-Yo Ma perform Dvorak’s Going Home in his home studio] I suspect I am not the only one who has held impromptu “concerts” by internet video chat for family members, in my case some young nieces and nephews, who seemed to enjoy my amateur cello renditions of selected material from Bach and Lady Gaga. These “concerts” took place in my home office, because that’s where the computers and webcams live, and the acoustics of this small, hard room featured prominently. The cello is an instrument built for a recital hall or at least a large salon, and a small room with mostly hard surfaces reflects and amplifies its sound in a striking way. It gets loud! This can be exciting, especially for an amateur player like me, to hear my sound filling the room, sounding huge and awesome.
This effect is even more pronounced in another small hard room we all know well: the bathroom. So much so that the bathroom is widely understood as the place with the “best acoustics,” at least for certain things, and the “bathroom effect” is the gratifying and exciting feeling of hearing one’s own voice or instrument loud and strong in an acoustically reflective and supportive environment.
Jimmy Kimmel’s popular late night TV show has also adapted to our work-from-home reality, and they have invited musical guests to perform remotely as well: from their bathrooms. I was particularly taken with this performance by two members of the band The Killers using a portable keyboard with its small built-in speakers, an unamplified acoustic guitar, and Brandon Flowers’ natural voice, all simply captured by a phone. This might be as close as any of us will ever get to hearing these two great musicians perform unaided, in a natural acoustical environment. The bathroom, with its broad mirror, small size, and typical hard surfaces, naturally amplifies the music, blends the voice and instruments, and gives the music a sense of space. It’s all around us. The keyboard is upfront to our left and right, the voice is strong in the middle, and the guitar is set back at a short distance. The room even provides a short, strong echo that recalls the vocal sounds of early rock’n’roll. [Listen to Tutti Frutti by Little Richard]
Of course the unique acoustics of the bathroom are not the best for every situation. Professional musicians and advanced students may spend hours each day practicing in a small room, and it is important for them that this room not display the “bathroom effect.” A proper music practice room should not be excessively loud, both to preserve the musician’s hearing and to allow them to hone their technique with a dynamic range that is similar to a performance situation. A proper practice room should also allow the player to hear technical details and controlled musical gestures, rather than covering up these details and exaggerating gestures. A live performance space, on the other hand, will naturally be larger than a bathroom, sometimes much larger, and this changes everything about the acoustics. A large room can provide beautiful and enveloping reverberation without excessive loudness and without muddying clarity of the music. For amplified music, a performance room should provide sufficient acoustical absorption to allow the musicians to control their sound with their technology, rather than forcefully blending it together like the bathroom did for The Killers.
So, is the bathroom really the room with the best acoustics? Well, if you like to sing to yourself, but you don’t have a voice like Brandon Flowers or Little Richard, you might think so. Close the door, turn on the shower and imagine no one can hear you as you belt out your favorite tunes as they’ve never been heard before.