Looking out at 16 masked members of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Chamber Singers, Professor Kevin Ford asks them to “sing brighter.”
Wearing face masks, though, how can they tell if they’re brighter?
“If you’ve just taken a bite from a hot baked potato, how does your mouth feel? That’s brighter,” he tells them.
For the students, singing brighter is easier now than it has been in these mask-wearing times. Last week, the Chattanooga Singers, Chamber Singers, Women’s Chorale and Singing Mocs were given new masks, ones designed specifically to help them breathe better. And in singing, breathing better is one of the keys to singing better, says Ford, director of the Chattanooga and Chamber Singers at UTC.
“When you take a breath in cloth masks, the material plugs your mouth,” he said.
The new, stylishly black masks — known as Resonance Singer’s Masks and sold by MyMusicFolders — have metal strips in them, so they’re sturdier and fit more snugly around the edges than cloth ones. The new masks are made to order, so all students who are members of singing ensembles had their faces measured to ensure proper fit. The masks also have a filter inside that keeps out particles floating in the air, something else that can affect singing.
While standard cloth masks have only one layer of cloth, the new masks have three—one next to the face, then the filter, then an outer layer. Even with the three layers, they allow singers to breathe more easily than cloth, Ford said. Cloth masks also eliminate audio high frequencies.
“You don’t really hear consonants, and you don’t hear the ring of the voice,” he explained.
After only a couple of practices, students in the Chamber Singers say the new masks are definitely better.
“It makes the sound a lot clearer and it’s a little easier to breathe than a regular mask,” says tenor Gabriel Hubbard. “You can get a lot louder because it’s not as confining. You’re able to sing out as much as you possibly can, and it sounds good.”
For alto Kyndall Blum, less heat is one of the best features.
“They don’t get as hot in your mouth as you breathe in, which is very nice,” she said. “I can hear myself better. It doesn’t muffle as much.”
At a recent practice session in the Roland B. Hayes Concert Hall, the Chamber Singers—12 feet apart—tackle such works as “Lähtö” by composer Rautavaara, the hymn “Peace of God,” even Dolly Parton’s “Light of a Clear, Blue Morning.” In the new masks, the sound is clear and bright and goosebump-raising.
With decades of teaching, Ford can hear minute differences and, at different points in the practice, he gently said he can’t hear altos as much or told them not to be timid or — yes — asked them to sing brighter.
Ford has been researching better masks for several months, trying several but not being happy with them. He, along with Vincent Oakes, director of the Chattanooga Boys Choir, and Darrin Hassevort, director of the Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra Chorus, got together and tested the Resonance masks in a live setting. All three are sold on them.
In some ways, UTC singers are sort of guinea pigs in the masks’ efficiency.
“They didn’t exist eight months ago,” Ford says.
But taking the chance has been worth it.
“I can already tell that the sound is better, but what I was worried about was they just couldn’t take a deep breath. Now they can,” he said. “Once they get comfortable with the mask and start singing out, it will help a lot.”