Music Major Minute: Masks for Singers

Consider the pros and cons of different types of face masks and how well they work with singing and breathing.

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f you are a music major, welcome to a new semester with even more questions than spring break 2020—a.k.a. “the great distance learning experiment.” Throughout the summer months, the Chronicle of Higher Education and other higher education sources have been researching and reporting what universities are planning for fall 2020. The 2020 NATS National Virtual Conference offered scientific research on preventing COVID-19 spread and preparing for the lasting effects that survivors of the virus might face on their lungs, etc. There have been thorough scientific studies citing the risks of singing together in person, yet many universities are still planning on opening campuses for fall semester. Amidst all that we do not know, if we listen to our world’s leading scientists, we are learning that they believe masks are the single most effective way to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. 

While some schools are choosing online platforms for fall 2020, many are attempting face-to-face instruction with physical distancing and/or hybrid learning (partially online and partially in class). Most face-to-face classes will require mandatory face coverings. We have seen summer festivals postponed or moved online and opera houses and Broadway theaters close their doors and cancel their fall seasons. How will universities provide vocal instruction during a time when professionals worldwide are not singing in public? 

Safety for singers requires a proactive approach and support from our communities. As much as we want our students to have the full performance experience, it is necessary to adjust during a pandemic. For lessons and rehearsals, your professors will advise physical distancing and limit the number of singers per room. Recitals and ensemble performances might be livestreamed or postponed. Universities are preparing to provide continued education in responsible settings, and professors are working on creative ways to make the new normal fun. 

 

Mask Up, Buttercup 

A common question is “Which masks will work best for singing?” It’s one thing to wear a mask for 30 minutes in the grocery store and another matter entirely to wear a mask for hours in classes, rehearsals, and voice lessons. And plastic face shields alone do not contain the droplets we emit. This column is dedicated to what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended: cloth face masks.

On July 14, 2020, CDC Director Dr. Robert R. Redfield released the following statement: “Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus—particularly when used universally within a community setting. All Americans have a responsibility to protect themselves, their families, and their communities” (www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2020/p0714-americans-to-wear-masks.html). 

I have been on a quest to find a comfortable mask for singing because the cloth masks I wear for short periods of time tend to slip down my nose, fog my glasses, and can feel restrictive when breathing for singing. The following recommendations are from my “super spreader” singing friends and from my own experimentation. I am certain we all hope for a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible; but until then, build a face wall so we can all continue singing. 

 

The ClearMask™ 

Price: $64 for a box of 24 masks (not available for individual sale) 

Available at www.theclearmask.com

Pros: 

Your mouth is visible—this is of great importance for voice lessons when you need visual access to observe the function of the mouth/tongue for specific instruction. 

Foam edges add comfort and are not sealed to the face, (similar to the side gap on cloth masks) so there is some air flow. 

The anti-fog coating on the plastic shield works well. 

Available in two different strap styles: EZ-Adjuster or classic tie-on. 

Cons: 

Although the ClearMask features adjustable straps and can be secured tighter, a few of my singer friends could not get a good fit from nose to chin. 

Available only in adult size. 

Single use (sorry, landfills). 

My order took over three weeks for delivery. 

Side Note: 

The ClearMask was designed as an auxiliary aid for health workers to communicate with patients that needed to lip read due to hearing loss. ClearMasks have proved effective in pediatrics for smiling and calming children, which similarly benefits teachers and singers alike. 

 

Mandala Masks 

Price: $40 

Available at www.facebook/mandala-masks 

Pros: 

Our most beautiful aesthetic option, these masks are available in several unique cotton fabrics/prints.

Adjustable fit behind the head, secure and bendable nose band, and loose tie around the neck. 

Fabric is boned to stay away from the face, providing easy breathing. 

Available in adult and child sizes. 

Hand washable for many uses. 

Designed for singers. 

Cons: 

These are handmade, and my delivery took just over two weeks. 

 

Broadway Relief Project: The Singer’s Mask 

Price: $23.50 

Available at www.broadwayreliefproject.com 

Pros: 

This mask offers the most protected space around your mouth and is the best mask for deep breathing. 

Adjustable nose bar and ear straps. 

Available in both adult and child sizes. 

Three layers to contain droplets: cotton muslin outside and inside with polyester interfacing in the middle. 

Small “windows” near the upper cheek to allow additional airflow. 

Hand washable for many uses. 

Designed for singers. 

Bulk discounts available if ordering for your choir or ensemble. 

Cons: 

Not recommended for your Tinder profile pic . . . sorry, not sorry! 

Delivery took over three weeks—patience not included. 

Side Note: 

I tried a simple designed cotton mask that was made with three similar fabric layers and it was too hot and felt immediately suffocating—this Broadway Relief design protects with three layers but is structured for comfortable breathing. If you are buying simple cotton masks online, read the description of fabric and layering so you know what you are purchasing. 

 

Surgical/General Purpose Masks 

Price: Approximately $10 for a box of 25 

Available at drugstores, Costco, Amazon, medical supply companies, etc. 

Pros: 

Best value for a disposable mask.

Adjustable nose placer and layers stay put. I stretch it out around my mouth, and I can sing more comfortably than with cloth masks of similar design. The synthetic fibers stay put while breathing, unlike cotton fabrics, which will move in and out with breath.

Easy to keep a pack of these in your purse or backpack for a backup or a giveaway. 

Cons: 

Not adjustable behind the ears—if you are small, the elastic bands can be doubled around the ears, but the design is “one size fits most.” 

 

Dust Masks 

Price: $30 for a box of 10 

Available in hardware stores such as Lowe’s and probably your dad’s garage 

Pros: 

These are shaped away from the mouth to allow for easy breathing. 

Made of filtered materials—the Rona isn’t getting in or out of this material. 

Adjustable nose piece to fit in place. 

Designed for adult laborers working up to 10 hours in comfort. 

Cons: 

Elastic straps are not adjustable. 

Disposable (I worry about so many masks that cannot be recycled, but healthy humans are my first priority). 

 

CDC Pro-Tip 

N95 respirator masks are not for the general public. The CDC recommends these masks be reserved for health care workers and first responders. To be honest, you don’t want these masks anyway. They are designed to seal around the face and are the most difficult mask style for singers managing long breaths. 

Don Now, Doff Later 

In conclusion, if you can manage your breathing for singing in a homemade mask, that will do. If not, I hope these recommendations prove helpful. The most important function of a face covering is to prevent spreading the aerosols that singers share at similar rates to coughing or sneezing. As the director of the CDC stated, wearing a mask is the best way to slow down and prevent the spread of the coronavirus. 

We should continue to wash hands with soap for 20 seconds, physically distance at least six feet away from others in public spaces, and sanitize frequently touched surfaces. And remember to keep your mask clean. Use warm water and regular laundry detergent if cleaning your mask in a washing machine. If washing your mask by hand, follow the instructions on the CDC’s website (www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/how-to-wash-cloth-face-coverings.html). Be sure to dry your mask on a high heat setting in a dryer or in direct sunlight if you choose to air dry. 

As you head back to school with your favorite mask for singing, remember that sleep and hydration will help keep your own immune system strong. I wish you good health, comfortable masked singing, and a future where we can doff the masks and sing without worry.

Christi Amonson

Soprano Christi Amonson is an assistant professor of voice and director of opera initiative at Augusta University and a teaching artist in residence for the summer Festival de Ópera San Luis in Mexico. She earned her DMA at the University of Arizona, her MM in voice at the Manhattan School of Music, and her BM in music education at the University of Idaho. Amonson is an active singer, writer, and member of NATS and NOA. She lives in Augusta, Georgia, with her husband and three daughters.