Choir Practices in Masks – Observations of an Animateur is times of Covid-19.

Practice 1 

There were about 15 of us, a few of us wore masks and I sporadically wore a strange, pointy mask.  Apart from it feeling strange it was fine.  We stood more than 3m apart in a massive circle.  We couldn’t hear each other much.   I noticed a desire to push because we were outside and we all checked in on being able to hear each other and me and worked on standing effectively and not pushing our voices.  

Practice 2 – 

There were 6 of us and we stood about 2m apart and all wore masks. 

Today I wore a tighter mask and observed lots of things that I thought would be beneficial to others so I’m sharing my observations here.  The image is the type of mask that I wore for this practice. I affectionately refer to them as pants masks. 

Breathing 

Firstly I felt that breathing deeply was more challenging when wearing the mask.  When I breathed in deeply the mask sucked into my mouth, which was unpleasant and felt drying.  It made me feel a bit like I was struggling to breathe in, bringing with it a slight sense of panic.  Panic is too large for what I felt but I did feel that I was struggling to breathe and that wasn’t nice.  I think that if I was someone who tended to get panic attacks I would have been much more unnerved.  (I didn’t have any problem wearing the mask in itself, the challenge was the deep breathing that singing requires). 

As a result we focussed on feeling expansion in different places in our bodies when we breathed in.  This involved focussing on the sides of our lower ribcages, our abdominal muscles and our backs.  We also felt upper chest breathing.  We then focussed on the lower breath in order to calm down any unnerving feelings from how it felt to sing in our masks (not to mention any embarrassment some of the singers felt from feeling exposed because we were singing in the park). 

We examined which lower body expansion felt most flexible and accessible to each singer.  For the singers today it was back expansion all round so we focused on that in our singing work. 


Resistance 

The second thing was that singing through the mask was more effortful.  This was a double edged sword.  It took concentration to ensure that we didn’t push.  These were things I noticed in myself and then asked the singers to check personally and they also experienced a desire to push their voices more than at our previous, indoor practices. 

The other effect was that on removing the mask I felt like I had done a very full vocal workout.  It felt a little like after doing SOVT* exercises.  I was really REALLY pleasantly surprised by this side effect.  I had no idea that singing with a mask could strengthen my singing muscles.  I have no idea if this is likely to be proven in a research lab but it was a very clear feeling for me after singing in the mask.  

Lastly I had no idea how much I rely on facial expression for my instructions till my face was mostly covered up.  That is going to take a lot of work! 

So my advice to those of us who will be singing with a mask is:-

Keep your breath low in your body (below the upper chest if at all possible), and watch out for any sense of panic when breathing in through the mask. 

Ensure that your body is aligned and energised, so that lower breathing is easily accessed. 

Do not push the voice and trust that you can be heard.  If you’re not sure ask if you are loud enough someone who is far away from you if they can hear you.  If you are not a particularly loud singer then do not try to be louder because you are outdoors.  If you are a choir leader who has a quiet voice then I suggest investing in amplification.  I was surprised to be told I could be heard in the park.  Very surprised. 

Enjoy the resistance that the material gives to you.  Maybe we can save the seas from our plastic straws, so long as we don’t let our face masks end up in there instead. 

*SOVT stands for semi occluded vocal tract exercises.  It’s a posh way of describing any sort of exercise where the flow of air from your mouth is impeded.  These range from lip trills (lip bubbles/horse lips), tongue trips, puffy cheeks, humming through straws (very popular at the moment) or humming whilst blowing bubbles into water through a tube, singing on an ng through the nose, humming or various kinds of buzzing.  I’m sure I have missed out plenty of others.  I bet if you’ve ever been in a choir or had a singing lesson or any kind you’ve used SOVT singing exercises.  

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