Singing in the Mask – Literally

One thing I do not teach is the concept of placement. It’s something I was taught, and it was something that worked for me, because I respond well to imagery. I’d rather draw awareness to individual sensations of resonance instead.

The idea of “singing in the mask” comes from the idea that the classical singer directs their voice forward so that it rings in the front of the face, the part the might be covered by a mask. This is to create maximum resonance, focus, and ring. However, if it’s excessive, the sound might become pressed, nasal, and generally annoying. The voice needs to be resonant and have ring – but forward placement needs to be balanced with pharyngeal space in order to create chiaroscuro – the balance between light and dark. Too much back space, on the other hand, can make the voice woofy and dark, sound old, and generally unpleasant. For more on chiaroscuro, you can read this article from last summer.

Right now, with the coronavirus, “singing in the mask” has taken on a new meaning, especially with the studies showing how singing spreads aerosols. We are all encouraged, and rightfully so, to wear masks and maintain social distance. And sometimes, when we do have the opportunity to perform, we may be asked to wear a mask. And how will that work?

I’m doing a series on Instagram called “Singing in the Mask – Literally” (hey, that’s the title of this blog!) to explore different mask options to see just how something like this could work. And while I’m at it, to see what kind of technical advantages using the mask in practice might have? There’s a thing called manually obstructed vocal tract exercises. We’ve used semi-occluded vocal tract exercises in the studio before – lip trills, tongue trills, straw work – but manually occluded vocal tract exercises involve physically blocking the mouth with something. It could be a hand, it could be a cup, it could be… wait… a MASK!

But which mask? Which mask would allow you be aware of breath resistance and of resonance sensations but still allow you to articulate and be expressive.

The first mask I tried was the Clear Mask, which I purchased from a voice teacher colleague who had purchased a box of 25 and found that they didn’t suit her needs. I took one of her hands, and here was the result (bad hair day):

Way too many gaps, not the right size. I did feel a lot of resonance, but no more than if I held saran wrap over my mouth. Which is another choice. D

The second mask I tried was the duckbill N95, which my husband brought home from the hospital for me. After this video, I wore it to sing a funeral (hence GREAT hair and makeup day) and found it very effective.

This worked very well. The left earpiece was a little wonky so I had to move it under my ear, but the fit was so secure that it wasn’t an issue. I could breathe, I could articulate. It was a little warm, and removing it to drink water was a little awkward. Of course, any facial expressions below the nose were lost (which meant I had to work a little harder with vocal colors and my eyes in order to interpret the text.) But it fit, I could articulate, I felt the vibrations, and it was safe, without air escaping on the top, sides, or bottom. I would love to paint it yellow. A

The last mask I ordered was from a fashion company called Ellebabe and the ad showed up on Facebook. It was a pretty fabric, inexpensive, and had a clear screen so that you could see the wearer’s mouth. Sounds great! I was excited. This could solve my problems (wet hair day).

The beauty mark was a nice touch. And it is a pretty color. And there’s definitely a lot of resonance and resistance (A). But articulation? (F)

I will be trying some more out. Why don’t you follow me on Instagram and see what I try next?

Published by Mezzoid Voice Studio

Christine Thomas-O'Meally, a mezzo soprano and voice teacher currently based in the Baltimore-DC area, has performed everything from the motets of J.S. Bach to the melodies of Irving Berlin to the minimalism of Philip Glass. As an opera singer and actress, she has appeared with companies such as Charm City Players, Spotlighters Theatre, Chicago Opera Theater, Opera Theater of Northern Virginia, Opera North, the Washington Savoyards, In Tandem Theatre, Windfall Theater, The Young Victorian Theater of Baltimore, and Skylight Opera Theatre. She created the role of The Woman in Red in Dominick Argento’s Dream of Valentino in its world premiere with the Washington Opera and Mary Pickersgill in O'er the Ramparts at its world premiere during the Bicentennial of Battle of Baltimore at the Community College of Baltimore County. Other roles include Mrs. Paroo in Music Man, Mother Abbess in Sound of Music, Dorabella in Cosi Fan Tutte, Marcellina in Le Nozze di Figaro, both Hansel and the Witch in Hansel & Gretel, and many roles in Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. Her performance as the Housekeeper in Man of La Mancha was honored with a WATCH award nomination. Ms. Thomas-O'Meally received an M.M. in vocal performance from the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. She regularly attends master classes and workshops in both performance and vocal pedagogy, and is certified in all three Levels of Somatic Voicework™ The LoVetri Method. Her students have performed on national and international tours of Broadway productions, at prestigious conservatories, and in regional theater throughout the country.

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