Monday, September 21, 2020

Singing with masks: advice for choir leaders

I wrote last week about how wearing masks might affect singers and how they can overcome any obstacles.

This week I want to look at the impact on choir leaders.

Choirs are starting to rehearse again, both indoors and outdoors. Many are insisting that their singers wear masks.

Last week I briefly touched on the different kinds of mask that singers might be wearing, and how that might affect their singing.

I’ll repeat here the main ways in masks can affect singers and then look at what the implications are for choir leaders.

Rather than seeing this as a problem, there are many opportunities here for doing detailed and interesting work with your choir.

how masks affect singing

  1. physical discomfort – it can get hot in a mask and the material can get drawn into the mouth when breathing in.
  2. reduced volume – the cloth or other mask material reduces the volume of the singer’s voice.
  3. loss of high frequencies – which is how lots of ‘unvoiced consonants’ such as F, TH and S are produced.
  4. blurred gaps between words – it’s harder to detect where one word ends and the next begins.
  5. lack of facial cues – this will affect teachers/choir leaders more than singers, but it does make it harder to communicate with fellow singers.

the discomfort of wearing a mask

Some singers will initially feel uncomfortable when singing in a mask. There will be a tendency to over-compensate for perceived lack of breath. Singers may end up taking more frequent, shallower breaths than normal.

It is important therefore to incorporate plenty of slow breathing exercises in your warm ups to encourage the singers to relax and to feel comfortable in taking long, slow breaths. If this is done gently, it should avoid sucking in the cloth of the mask when breathing in.

It may be that singers may want to adjust their masks to they fit comfortably for singing. Allow time for this, and remind singers to take masks on and off by the straps only.

Some singers have reported masks getting very wet and uncomfortable over time. This can happen to varying degrees (some choirs have had no problems with this). A good idea is to have a “mask break” every half hour or so (for example) in order to let masks dry out, and to avoid any other discomfort of wearing a mask for too long (e.g. tightness of straps).

The same applies to the choir leader of course. Make sure you’re comfortable in your own mask, take breaks from time to time and make adjustments as necessary

There are masks especially designed for singers which may avoid some of the more common discomforts.

singers who won’t or can’t wear masks

It is your choir, so you will decide whether mask-wearing is mandatory or not.

Some singers will say they prefer not to wear a mask because they don’t like it, or it stops them from breathing properly, or they find them uncomfortable, or it reduces their oxygen intake (not true), and so on. See last week’s post about the various myths about mask-wearing.

Such singers have a clear choice: if they don’t want to wear a mask, then they can’t attend your choir sessions if you’ve made it mandatory. If they attend without a mask, they are putting other singers at risk.

Other singers may have medical or physical reasons for not being able to wear a mask. You won’t want them to attend a choir session as it puts other singers at risk. However, it seems unfair to exclude them for something that is outside their control.

One solution for those who can’t (or won’t) wear a mask is to incorporate a live internet stream of your choir session. Some singers will attend in person, whilst others can stay at home and participate via a streaming platform like Zoom. This does require that your rehearsal space has internet access. Several choirs have done this successfully. It also enables people who are self-isolating to join in.

reduced volume

Masks will reduce the volume of both the speaking and the singing voice. This means that you, the choir leader, will have to make more effort for your instructions to be heard clearly. Also you won’t be able to hear your singers as well as usual.

As a choir leader, it can soon become very tiring trying to project through a cloth mask, especially since your singers will be spread out more than usual. This becomes particularly difficult when working outside in masks. You don’t want to wreck your voice.

One solution is to use a small PA system with a microphone that can slip easily under your mask, or fit to your cheek like those used in musical theatre.

Another solution is to lead the session without talking! You can do this very easily if you have a regular group who know you well. You can do the warm up as a simple “copy me” series of familiar exercises. Then go over well-known songs which you can announce in advance by writing the title on a piece of card and giving out the starting notes from an instrument.

Although recent research has shown that singing is no more risky than talking in terms of COVID-19 spread, there is a steep rise in a aerosol droplets with increase in loudness of singing. Which means that you don’t want your singers to sing loudly. That, coupled with the reduced volume created by the mask, means that your singers won’t be able to hear each other as well as usual, and you will have to concentrate to hear them too.

This creates a great opportunity to do plenty of listening exercises. Here is a chance to really focus on listening skills, blend and small details. Make sure that singers resist the urge to break social distancing by leaning into each other!

loss of high frequencies and word breaks

Wearing a mask means that it will be difficult to distinguish between high frequency unvoiced consonants like F, S an TH or even to be able to hear them clearly at all. Also, boundaries between words will become blurred or non-existent.

This creates another great opportunity to work on articulation and to slow songs down in rehearsal to accentuate word gaps, which in turn will help singers know where they should and shouldn’t take breaths.

Concentrate on group focus and make sure your singers don’t overwork their voices by over-compensating. Get them to use tongues, mouth and facial muscles rather than voice to highlight differences.

Some choirs have reported that loss of high frequencies has actually improved their choir’s ability to blend. By losing part of the sound spectrum, singers’ voices become a little more similar. So working on blend between sections might be a good idea while using masks.

facial cues

It’s only when something is taken away that we notice how important it is. Singers and choir leaders may think that they express themselves primarily through their voices, but it’s amazing how important facial expression is. Wearing a mask severely limits that.

Once again, a limitation can become an opportunity. Having taken away your singers’ ability to express themselves through their faces, you can spend time on channelling everything through their voices. If you like them to smile while they’re singing, get them to smile with their eyes.

One big problem for the choir leader with lack of facial expression is that you won’t know if your singers are enjoying themselves (or are confused or bored)!

Try to check in with your singers regularly and get them to feed back with gestures such as waves. Get them to ‘dance’ the songs more by using their bodies to express feeling.

You also won’t be able to mouth the words to the songs – which may be a good thing.

There are masks out there that have been designed to help those who rely on lip reading. Some choirs use these or have made their own versions which have a transparent section over the mouth area.

and finally …

You might be interested in this: Hungarian orchestra conductor invents music-enhancing face mask which might be very useful for choir leaders!



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Chris Rowbury




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