Ottawa

Soprano creates mask made specially for singers

Ottawa soprano Joan Fearnley invented a mask tailor made for vocalists, which has then been adapted for choirs around the world.

Choirs around world wear masks based on Joan Fearnley's model

A protective mask tailored for singers allows 'for a space in front of the mouth for resonant sound.' It was sewn by Rhonda Cozzarin. (Submitted by Joan Fearnley)

Ottawa vocalist and choir director Joan Fearnley set in motion a sewing circle that stitched its way around the world when she started posting tutorials for a mask she designed specifically for singers.

Fearnley is both a soprano and conductor with the Bytown Voices, and the former director of the Women's Choir and the Children's Choir at Notre Dame Cathedral.

In the early days of the pandemic, she searched online and on social media for a mask that would allow her to sing safely in public.

Choirs had fallen silent, forced to stop performing and practising because the act of singing, with its deep breathing and voice projection, had been identified as a super spreader of COVID-19.  

Fearnley says she couldn't find a mask online that was suitable for the needs of a singer.

"They were really close to the lips and you would breathe in and you would suck the fabric right into your mouth. You would open [your mouth] wide to make a tall vowel and the mask would pop off," she said. 

WATCH | Ottawa soprano creates specialized mask for singers:

There’s a mask for that — Ottawa soprano creates specialized mask for singers

3 months ago
Duration 1:23
In 2020, Joan Fearnley says she found herself frustrated with the masks she wore while singing, which were restrictive and ill-fitting. So she took it upon herself to create a mask that would allow for more movement while still keeping choir members safe. 1:23

That's when she decided to try to build one herself. Sitting at a sewing machine in her basement, Fearnley began experimenting with fabrics and designs, eventually coming up with a workable model that used two layers of cotton, a polypropylene filtration layer on the inside of the mask, and zip ties to keep the mask from drooping.

Fearnley wasn't interested in setting up a business or manufacturing the masks herself. She wanted to share the idea so "anyone good with a needle or a sewing machine could get to work and make their own masks." 

"I wanted to give people the tools to help themselves," said Fearnley. "I created a community so that innovation could be shared and we could speed that up."

She set up a Facebook page and posted how-to videos on YouTube. Soon she heard from choirs, sewers and even scientists from around the world who were either making the masks or suggesting design improvements.

Hundreds of thousands of masks have been made by choral groups and theatrical companies across North America, Europe and Asia, and recently she's heard from choirs in New Zealand.  

Joan Fearnley, who searched in vain at the beginning of the pandemic for masks that would work for singers, says 'necessity is the mother of invention.' (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Local choirs wearing Fearnley's design

Kurt Ala-Kantti, the director of music at St. Thomas the Apostle Anglican Church and the Harmonium Choir, counts himself lucky his sister-in-law is also an accomplished seamstress who stitched up dozens of the masks, allowing his choirs to resume singing after two years of waiting.

"To come back and sing together and make a nice sound using these masks, it's hard to describe. I think we were all in tears at times at our first rehearsal," said Ala-Kantti. 

"Having these super masks that Joan has come up with allow for a space in front of the mouth for resonant sound, but also for being able to take a breath in and not breathe in a mouth full of fabric."

Ala-Kantti says the individually sewn masks can be colour co-ordinated with the singers' gowns, which is an added perk.

The SYC Ensemble Singers from Singapore is one of a number of choirs from around the world to make the masks. (submitted by Joan Fearnley)

For Fearnley, it's been especially gratifying to see her own choir safely reassemble after the long, quiet spell. 

"I have a lot of seniors, and some of these seniors have been home for a full year, "said Fearnley.

"I think community choirs have a really big role to play in taking some of these people, who have been isolated, by the hand and make them feel really safe to make music again." 

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story said hundreds of masks have been made by choral groups, when in fact the number is hundreds of thousands.
    Oct 30, 2021 4:41 PM ET
  • A previous version of this story said the masks have three layers of cotton. They have two layers of cotton and one layer of polypropylene.
    Nov 04, 2021 9:24 AM ET

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sandra Abma

Journalist

Sandra Abma is a veteran CBC arts journalist. If you have an event or idea you want to share, please do at sandra.abma@cbc.ca.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now