by Marisa Torrieri Bloom
Singing with a mask on isn’t fun. To keep from passing out, one must pace themselves, carefully planning each whisper, hum, or caterwaul. It’s natural for the mask to slip down under the nose. If the singer is playing another instrument, like a guitar, he or she must find the right split second between measures to yank it back up, without missing a beat.
Singing with a mask on isn’t attractive. This is a problem, because we singers don’t like to feel unattractive. We’re the front women and front men in our bands, the Mick Jaggers who wield charisma and high energy as we move our bodies to the beat.
Singing with a mask on also muffles the sound of the singer’s voice — which is the biggest issue that I have with them.
I know all these things because I sing while wearing a cloth mask. So badly do I want to yank it off during outdoor band practice, inhale the crisp air through my nostrils, hear the even crisper sound of consonants captured by my microphone. I want to enjoy the freedom of breathing, unencumbered, and exhaling sound without feeling like I’m trapped in a sauna.
But I don’t because of COVID.
I’m the lead singer of Trashing Violet, a hard rock band based in Fairfield County, Connecticut, and over the summer my bandmates and I have been practicing in each others’ backyards, in front of each others’ kids. I sing with my mask on for up to 90 minutes, taking occasional breaks to take a sip of a drink. Wearing a mask makes my lead guitarist, bassist, and drummer more comfortable. It makes their spouses and kids more comfortable. It makes me feel better because I know I’m doing everything possible — outside of quitting my band — to prevent the spread of COVID.
While I’m fairly certain I don’t have the coronavirus, asymptomatic transmission is a real thing. And with singing, the consequences are potentially deadly.
An April study published by the CDC noted that the “act of singing” in a March Seattle-area choir practice had likely contributed to 53 of 61 attendees getting sick with COVID-19 — and two dying. As the LA Times noted in an article on singing and COVID-19, reports have surfaced of other outbreaks after choir performances, including one in Amsterdam that claimed four lives.
Yet these articles mainly address communal singing, and are primarily focused on indoor settings, such as churches. They don’t address the safety of singing outdoors when the singer isn’t wearing a mask.
This raises questions for rock bands like mine, with just one lead singer: If I have COVID-19, what are the chances I could infect someone several feet away (like a bandmate)? Have there been any outbreaks of COVID triggered by an infected singer? Is there any reason patrons in a restaurant need to worry about the outdoor live entertainment?
There are no definitive answers to these questions. We’re still learning more about COVID everyday. As one July study published in the peer-reviewed voice medicine publication J Voice noted, “there is a paucity of data about both how SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted by singing and how to bring communities of singers back together safely.”
Fortunately, we know a few things.
We know that outdoors is safer than indoors. In Connecticut, where I live, this is why we’re still in Phase 2 with reopening, which limits live entertainment to outdoor settings, and requires that entertainers stand 12 feet away from their audience — and each other. We also know with a pretty high degree of certainty that masks, coupled with social distancing, can help reduce the likelihood of virus transmission.
Meanwhile, in the two months since the NYC tristate area has reopened restaurants, singers and bands are playing everywhere they can. While a handful of musicians are wearing masks when they perform, many are not. When I was in visiting Narragansett last weekend, I saw a singer on the outdoor porch of a restaurant by the peer belting out rock covers, standing possibly less than 12 feet away from the nearest group of patrons. Sights like these are not uncommon.
I can’t help but wonder how many of these singers have children or live with older relatives. Just the thought of passing on the coronavirus to a dependent gives me the shivers.
I understand why some singers might not even entertain the thought of singing while wearing a mask. They can feel suffocating, and may distort the vocal output. Working musicians are paid for the quality of their work, and if they can’t execute properly, it calls their professionalism into question.
I also understand that life isn’t fair. Working singers — those who need the $500 they make from a gig like a wedding to pay rent — are accustomed to playing in intimate settings, where the distance between the entertainer and patron is closer.
Unfortunately, the safest and best live opportunities for performers in the coronavirus era are inaccessible to most everyday working musicians: I’m talking mainly about the “drive in” outdoor music shows that are happening now, where an entertainer performs on a stage at least 20 feet away from the audience. In settings like these, which feature well-known, original music acts, the big concern isn’t whether the singer is wearing masks so much as the lack of social distance among concert-goers (just ask Chase Rice or the Chainsmokers).
To be fair, I must admit I am not a working singer who relies on $500 gigs to live. Though I make a little cash from playing out with my band and as a solo artist, my main sources of income come from writing and teaching guitar (which, right now, is 100 percent masked and social distanced in backyards).
Yet while I am sympathetic to the plight of all musicians — whether they are reliant on performance income or not — the fact remains no working singer can guarantee that he or she doesn’t have COVID-19 unless he or she is tested.
While outdoors is safer than indoors, restaurants may want to consider requiring singers to wear masks in all settings when at least 12 feet of distance between performers and audiences cannot be guaranteed. If and when we move into Phase 3, which allows indoor live entertainment, I probably won’t go to a concert where masks aren’t required (unless, of course, we have a decent COVID-19 vaccine).
And while I am sympathetic to musicians, I’m so sick of the whining about masks or face shields. Singing while wearing a mask is hard, it isn’t impossible. And as performers, it is our obligation to ensure our audience can safely enjoy themselves.
One bright piece of news came across my radar recently is the patent-pending mask that singers can wear so they can more safely sing in groups. I am about to pre-order mine. I have to admit, it looks about as “natural” as condoms probably did in the 1970s, and there’s no doubt we’ll have complainers among us. But this is life. We must adapt to our circumstances (and as we learned in the sexually liberated ’60s and ’70s, asymptomatic individuals can transmit STDS).
Until we know more about COVID, we need to remember that our personal freedoms are less important than the collective good. If we have been gifted with beautiful voices and the opportunity to play outdoor shows, we need to be grateful to our audiences — and committed to protecting them. When I play my only outdoor gig this summer on August 7, I will most likely be wearing a mask or using a face shield/microphone shield.
Like all musicians, I cannot wait until the day when we can experience live music like it’s 2019, when drawing a large-enough audience for a Tuesday night show was my biggest concern. Until then, I will do whatever I need to do to play music and bring joy to others through playing music — even if the sound of my voice is a little more muffled.
Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor and founder of Rockmommy.