Singing in Masks

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The Telfordaires at our first live meet since March: We sing outdoors, distanced, masked, in smaller groups, and for limited durations. Main rehearsals for everyone together remain online for now.The Telfordaires at our first live meet since March: We sing outdoors, distanced, masked, in smaller groups, and for limited durations. Main rehearsals for everyone together remain online for now.

Back in the depths of lockdown, when the only shops that were open were grocery stores, I was walking home along a weirdly empty high street with a bag of shopping, singing to myself absent-mindedly. After a while I noticed that (a) I had never sung in a mask before* and it was so easy that it had taken me a while to realise I was even doing it, and (b) I had no idea if I normally sing absent-mindedly to myself on the way home from the shops, or whether it was some combination of empty streets and the illusion of privacy behind a mask that had freed me up to do so.

This was still at the time when the general public were being exhorted not to buy medical masks but to leave them for those in health and care services. I had friends in East Asia telling me that masks were the norm for infection control in their countries, but it would be another 3 months before face coverings were made mandatory for indoor public settings in the UK. So my mask was home-made, in three layers of cotton; I later added a nose-wire to improve the fit around the top.

Since then, of course, we have learned from the work at the University of Colorado and colleagues what a tremendous difference masks make to the emission of aerosols by singers, and thus to enhancing the safety of choral music-making. Look at the graphics on pages 18,19 & 27 of this document to see what a dramatic difference they make.

Now that live singing by amateur choirs is no longer banned in England, I’m seeing a lot of conversations about risk management in which people are throwing up their hands in horror and saying they couldn’t possibly sing in a mask. In the light of the experience with I started this post, I wonder if this is because they are making assumptions about what it would be like, rather than actually spending some time doing it and working out how to make it work.

My purpose in this post is to help everyone get to wear a mask when they sing in groups. This is because I want you and your singing friends all to be as safe as possible, and this is one of the most useful things you can all do for each other to make that happen. I’ll cover some practical things about the masks themselves, and also consider some of the vocal/musical issues people have raised as concerns.

People worry about various aspects of comfort with singing in a mask. They worry if they’ll be able to get enough air in, and whether their glasses will steam up. A lot of this comes down to fit. If you find that the mask is flapping against your mouth too much as you breathe, you can use a mask bracket to hold it away from your face, or one of the specialist singers’ masks that have these effectively built in. If the mask gets uncomfortably damp, simply having a change of mask available can help.

Once you have solved the issue of the mask flapping against your mouth distractingly, you’ll also have dealt with the worry that you’re not getting enough air, as it is the sensation of sucking air through fabric that creates that impression. From a physical perspective, singing doesn’t take any more air than, say, walking briskly, so get the comfort sorted and the respiration will look after itself. For steaming-up, fit round the nose is key; also rubbing your lenses with washing-up liquid can help prevent fogging.

I found that my home-made masks were a bit tight across the front of my face and meant that I couldn’t effectively bubble (I think they may also have shrunk a bit in the wash since I first made them!). The three layers of fabric were also taking the edge off the consonants (to anticipate the musical issues I’ll talk about next). Switching to a surgical mask, now that they are no longer in short supply, fixed both of these problems. Indeed, it was actually a bit big and tended to ride up in front of my eyes, so I use a strap with buttons round the back of my neck to anchor it instead of my ears, and that keeps it in good position.

Hence, there are various solutions to making singing with a mask more comfortable, and it is worth spending a bit of time and experimentation to figure out solutions that work for you. Explore different possibilities at home before going to rehearsal, so you have done your problem-solving and getting used to things with no other distractions so you can focus on the music when you meet up with the other singers.

One thing to note: masks with exhalation valves may make things more comfortable, but as the point is to let your air out, they don’t actually do the job you want your mask to do while singing. They have their uses in some settings, but are more about protecting the wearer than everyone else. The point of masks in rehearsal (and, eventually, performance) is to drastically cut your chance of infecting others if it turns out you were pr-symptomatic at the event.

So those are the physical factors. Musically, people are worried about the effect on the sound, and here again, it’s much less than you’d think. The primary resonant space for the voice, in which we amplify the vibrations created by air going between our vocal folds, is inside the mouth. To optimise the quality of sound coming from that source, we want a poised head that lets the larynx hang freely, and good contact between the folds, well coordinated with the breath flow. To shape the resonant qualities of the amplified sound, we can adjust tongue, jaw, soft palate, and aryepiglottic sphincter.

All of this goes on inside us, and thus is not in the least affected by fabric in front of the face. There may be a bit damping of the sound coming out of the mouth, but actually that’s only a small part of the equation. It’s like playing a guitar behind a cloth screen – it would be a bit quieter, but it wouldn’t be like stuffing a cushion inside it.

Indeed, one of the things that helps keep a consistent resonant space is avoiding over-articulating with the jaw, and wearing a mask actually helps with this. We don’t get so many brightsides in choral singing these days, so we’ll take them where we can find them.

And wearing a mask would certainly have a lot less of an impact on the sound than trying to keep everyone singing mezzo piano and quieter, as has been suggested by some in the wake of Declan Costello’s findings about the effect of volume on aerosol emissions. It makes a lot more artistic sense to sing as the music needs, and use masks, distancing and being outdoors to mitigate your aerosol risks than trying to limit your aerosol production by shrinking away from the musical purpose of your chosen repertoire.

There’s a deeper worry around wearing masks that it cuts people off from each other expressively. It does certainly mean we see less of each other’s faces; the first time you meet your choir in masks there’s a fair bit of ‘Oh, it’s you!’-ing to be done. But I was comforted in the write-up my chorus published of our first outdoor session on Saturday that spoke of how my eyes lit up as I heard the chords. Delight still shows, and love, and laughter. If we find ourselves really focusing in on the eyes as the windows to the musical soul during this phase of our musical journeys, it can do nothing but good for our longer-term expressiveness.

* Actually, I had never even worn a mask before except to try it on after making it the day before.

After reading this post, Andrea Day from Funky Masks asking if I'd like to do a review of their Singer's Mask. Here it is:

Since writing this post, another study, this one peer-reviewed, has shown the effectiveness of masks for reducing aerosol emission while singing.

Wear a mask, folks! It's important to keep all your singing friends safe!

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