Monday, September 14, 2020

Singing with masks: advice for singers

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

Archway Gospelish Choir, Sussex

What are the difficulties (if any) of singing while wearing a mask?

Here in the UK, government guidelines allow for amateurs to sing in groups under certain conditions (there are differences between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland). These guidelines are subject to change though.

Many choirs are meeting outdoors, but some are reconvening indoors in COVID-secure venues.

In both cases, singers are often being asked to wear masks.

There is no consistency amongst choirs however. Some allow singers to sing without masks, but insist on masks being worn while not singing. Others are enforcing mask wearing at all times, even when singing outdoors.

If you find yourself having to wear a mask when singing, what problems might you encounter?

(Next week I’ll look at difficulties that choir leaders may have when working with masks.)

different kinds of mask

There is a huge range of masks being worn, from full-on medical masks to home-made cloth masks. Some have one layer of thin cotton, whilst others may have three or more layers of differing materials.

The observations I am going to make are therefore fairly general in an attempt to cover most kinds of mask.

It is not sufficient to wear just a visor/ face shield if you are attempting to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.

Medical staff wear visors in order to prevent virus particles from entering the eyes. They always need to be worn in conjunction with a cloth or medical mask.

A study published by researchers from Florida Atlantic University on 1st September 2020 concluded that “face shields and masks with exhale valves may not be as effective as regular face masks in restricting the spread of aerosolized droplets.”

“I can’t breathe!” (and other myths about masks)

There is a lot of misinformation going around about how masks restrict oxygen intake, can result in an unhealthy build up of carbon dioxide and can even damage the immune system.

These claims are all false and have been debunked by scientists.

Read Coronavirus: 'Deadly masks' claims debunked (BBC) or The Truth About Masks and COVID-19 (American Lung Association) for more information.

how masks affect singing

There is very little research regarding teaching or singing with a PPE mask.

There are, however, five main areas where masks can adversely affect singing (and speaking).

The following is partly based on work by vocal music educator Brian O Ackles and speech pathologist and voice therapist Susan Butterfoss referred to in their article Leading Voices: Teaching and Singing While Wearing a Mask: Why it is a Challenge and How to Make it Better.

  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 sensation of singing in a mask

When you first wear a mask to sing, it will feel very strange. When you sing you will hear more of your own voice fed back to you than usual. You also won’t get the same feedback from your voice bouncing off the surroundings.

Initially you might find breathing a little uncomfortable. You might find that you suck the cloth of the mask in when breathing in. That might encourage you to take shallower breaths than normal which might lead to feelings of lack of breath and inability to support the sound.

To compensate for these unfamiliar feelings, you may find yourself over-compensating and trying to sing much louder than usual.

You may well end up feeling disillusioned and exhausted. But fear not, there are ways forward!

how to overcome the restrictions of a mask

The secret is to not try to tackle all the obstacles at once. Make tiny adjustments in each area of difficulty.

  • physical discomfort – as stated above, it can take a while before you become familiar with wearing a mask. Certain kinds of mask have been designed (so-called “singers masks”) which attempt to overcome some of the problems of wearing regular masks. The main difference between these and ordinary cloth masks is that there’s a beak-shaped cavity at the front which enables more jaw movement and means you’re not sucking in the cloth when you take an in-breath. It can also improve sound production a little. Many singers have found these to be of benefit.

    Liz Garnett has made a short video demonstrating the differences between a regular cloth or medical mask and a mask specially designed for singers: Singing in masks review.
  • reduced volume – Make sure your singing space is as quiet as possible so you’re not competing with external sounds. Focus on listening rather than production of sound. Try to relax and be more gentle in your approach.
  • loss of high frequencies/ blurred word boundaries – Avoid over-compensation by doing things that might hurt the voice (e.g. singing too loudly). Focus on articulating the initial and final sounds of each word. Maybe take songs a little slower to start. Concentrate on group focus. 
  • lack of facial cues – Make more eye contact with the other singers. Use gestures and body expression more. Try to smile with your eyes so your choir leader knows you’re having fun! 

Susan Butterfoss has written a very useful Vocalist’s Guide to Singing with a Mask which contains several practical exercises.

Liz Garnett has written a blog post about her experience of working with a group of singers wearing masks: Singing in masks.

if you can’t wear a mask for medical reasons

This is a tricky one. There are categories of people who, for a variety of reasons, are unable to wear masks.

The main reason for wearing a mask is to stop you, the mask wearer, from spreading the virus to other singers.

Which means, if there are singers in your group who are not wearing masks, they are putting other singers at risk.

The bottom line is that this will depend on the individual choir leader. I’ll be writing next week’s post about how choir leaders can deal with singers wearing masks and will include something about this.

It may be that mask-wearing is mandatory in your choir, which will mean excluding some people. This may be the price you have to pay to keep the majority of singers safe. However, there should also be ways that singers without masks can be included, e.g. combined in-person and Zoom sessions.

stay safe

I would encourage everyone who is going back to singing in a group – whether indoors or outdoors – to wear a mask. It’s also a good idea to limit the length of time you’re singing together: the longer you sing together (more than half an hour, say), the greater the risk of spreading the virus. And remember to keep your distance!


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Chris Rowbury




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