As It Happens

Choir director invents performer's face mask for safe singing

Kym Scott, director of choral activities at West Virginia University, has invented a "performer's mask" that allows choir members to sing without the muffling effects of a standard face mask.

Choral groups around the world have been silenced during the pandemic

Juwan Johnson, vocal performance senior at West Virginia University, tests a mask in a lab at WVU Health Sciences on August 5. (Christopher Young)


A choir director from the United States has come up with a way to ensure the show can go on — or at the very least, the rehearsals.

Kym Scott, director of choral activities at West Virginia University, has invented a "performer's mask" that allows choir members to sing without the muffling effects of a standard face mask.

Scott, who designed wedding dresses before beginning her career as a choir director, was inspired to marry her two skill sets after discovering that singing in a standard face mask was just "not great."

"I think anybody who has actually tried to sing in that way has come up against quite a lot of challenges," Scott told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.

"The biggest challenge, of course, being that ... the fabric of it tends to get breathed into your mouth," she explained.

"The other difficulty, of course, is the fact that you can't get a whole lot of resonance. So the sound tends to be very muffled. It's very hard to understand."

Masks are an important part of getting choral groups together again here in Canada and elsewhere in the world. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said choir practices have been identified as super-spreading events, including one in Skagit County, Wash., where one person with the virus infected 87 per cent of the group.

Kym Scott, director of choral activities and assistant professor at West Virginia University choir School of Music helps tighten a mask on 10-year old singer Thessaly Troilo in a testing lab at WVU Health Sciences. (Christopher Young)

Scott's Sing-Safe masks have a cupped shape that holds the fabric about 10 centimetres away from the nose and mouth. 

"But then the rest of the mask needed to be able to fit very close, because we wanted to be able to avoid having any of the pockets of air that … aerosol particles are coming in and out of," she explained. 

To test the masks's safety, Scott worked with West Virginia University's Center for Inhalation Toxicology, which has been working throughout the pandemic with organizations like hospitals and the West Virginia National Guard to test the safety of various face coverings.

It found the masks scored better than standard fabric masks for preventing droplets from getting in or out. 

A couple of other masks for singers have also come to market, but Scott said hers is unique in its snug fit.

'Silenced the voice of every choir worldwide'

Canadian choir singers are anxious to find safe ways to get their groups back together again after shutting down in early march.

"It has basically silenced the voice of every choir worldwide for a certain amount of time and still in many parts of Canada," said Laurier Fagnan, director of Chorale Saint-Jean at the University of Alberta in Edmonton and president-elect of Choral Canada, which represents choirs across the country.

"Choral singing was particularly hard hit because choral singing is based inherently on gathering and on being close and in signing and being in harmony with each other," he said, adding that his organization estimates there are 28,000 choirs in Canada.

That's why Chorale Saint-Jean is working with researchers from other disciplines at the university to study exactly what happens with droplet spread while people sing. 

With the outbreaks tired to choral events, it's been impossible to know if transmission was linked to the singing alone, or to the fact that people were in close proximity to one another, perhaps hugging as they greeted one another, sharing food and sheet music, said Fagnan.

Using experts in computational fluid dynamics, optical imaging and infectious diseases, the researchers will study what actually happens with droplets when people sing — how far they travel to the front or to the side, and what difference it makes when people sing high, low, loudly or softly, he said.

A 'performer's mask' is tested in a lab at WVU Health Sciences. (Christopher Young)

In the meantime, research from other parts of the world is making a case for singing while masked.

"Other studies are happening around the world that are starting to come in are showing that singing with a mask removes most of the problem," said Fagnan.

Unfortunately, those results haven't come quickly enough to ensure music education will be on the program when schools reopen in most of the country, he said. 

"Is it fair for them and their education to completely silence the musical aspect of their education and to have, possibly, a long-term effect on the development of music?" Fagnan said.

He worries kids who might otherwise grow up to be musicians will miss "the spark" afforded by a quality musical education.

It's not just in adult choirs that we're worried about; it's the educational system."

No shared sheet music

The Ontario Music Educators' Association has put out recommendations for a safe return to music education during the pandemic. It says singers should be a minimum of three metres away from one another, all facing forward — not in a circle or other configuration — and not share sheet music.

Kym Scott said her choirs will be following similar measures.

"We're not just putting on these masks and then saying, 'OK, we're good. We can go back to normal.' We're social distancing like crazy. We are actually going to be running our rehearsals mostly in a tent outdoors, at least while the weather allows. We will be doing everything we can to follow every guideline.

 "But on top of that, having these masks just give us that little extra level of safety."

Written by Brandie Weikle. Interview with Kym Scott produced by Katie Geleff.

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