According to a post by Scott Crandall on Violinist.com on September 29, 2005,
“…I am a returning adult student. I could not tell if my notes were in tune, I could tell if someone else’s notes were in tune, but not mine. There is a chain on this website where a professional violinist tells how he had trouble playing in tune, but when he used headphones in the recording studio his intonation was fine, [his] solution was to use an earplug in his left ear. After reading that I did some research. I found many articles dealing with hearing problems in violinist’s left ear, seems we subject our left ear to decibels that would not be permitted in Factory environments (up to 115 decibels). I also talked to my daughter’s vocal professor who had data that our right ear reacts faster to musical tones than our left.
“To make a long story short I began using one foam ear plug in my left ear….what a difference in my intonation, no more scratching noises in my ear from the bow, you would not believe how loud and distracting that is until you don’t hear it anymore. Since using the earplug I can hear my Intonation. I may not be hitting all notes correct initially yet, but now I know when they are incorrect and can make the correction needed, right away. My first lesson with the ear plug, blew my instructor away…we had been fighting intonation problems for 3 months to that point, he’d told me he didn’t know what else to do that maybe I had a physiological problem… well I did. Now I am making progress and I like to hear myself play. Periodically I don’t use the plug as an honesty check… the result convinces me all over again that the plug works. It may not be your solution, try one earplug in your left ear, see if that helps.”
So, what of this miracle plug? I confess I was initially skeptical, because I knew that using a practice mute similarly cuts out the resonating harmonics (and a few decibels) of a bowed string, in effect dulling the sound. And, for me, I actually found myself losing my sense of accuracy when playing with a heavy practice mute (see a similar complaint by Larry Brandt).
But, one day, as I was practicing a certain passage, with my metronome clicking away nearby on my music stand, I began to experience a bit of a headache. So, out of desperation, I ran to my percussion bag and pulled out my simple foam Howard Leight earplugs, and stuffed one in my left ear. The difference was instantly noticeable. Of course, my head wasn’t pounding anymore, but I also came to find that everything Mr. Crandall had claimed was true! I had a much better sense of pitch accuracy (instantly knowing if I was off-pitch and how far), while the distracting little noises from my bow hairs were eliminated from my sound; indeed my overall tone, to my own ever-so-critical ear, had vastly improved! I was sold, so to speak.
I now use my earplug in the left ear whenever I practice alone, and I find that the subtleties of my tone and intonation are much more easily navigated when I then perform or rehearse in a group without the plug. I have found, in contrast, that the disadvantage of the practice mute is the fact that it is dampening the instrument itself, somewhat changing the feel of it and encouraging misconceptions in terms of accuracy. Plugging the left ear, on the other hand, dampens the intensity of the sound as it reaches the ear, so the play of the instrument remains essentially unchanged; only the player’s interpretation of the sound is adjusted.
So, I say, give it a try! You may desire to purchase a specialty musician’s earplug, or use a simple foam earplug. You may need to cut it in half, or simply not push it all the way into the ear. Whatever’s comfortable for you. At any rate, if you have been frustrated with the inability to hear your own intonation accurately, or if the minute scratches of bowhair against strings have distorted your own perception of your tone, it should enhance the joy of playing your instrument, and you’ll be preserving the life of your ear for many more years of successful playing.
We trumpet players like to cover one of our ears while tuning with an ensemble during times when the pitch is “difficult” to hear. The effect is similar to the “miracle earplug” method. The sound is slightly muffled and distorted, but pitch differences are amplified, making tuning and overall intonation very easy to hear and correct.